The former Greenville mayor who received national praise in leading the city through the turmoil of public school integration during the Civil Rights era has died.
R. Cooper White was the city’s first Republican mayor when he was elected in 1969.
White, who was 90 when he died in hospice care on Saturday, served one term before yielding the reigns of the city to Max Heller.
“Cooper White was mayor during one of the most-challenging eras in our city’s history,” said current Mayor Knox White (no relation), who in the ninth grade served on his election committee. “He played a major role in calming the waters during a mid-year order for school desegregation, reached out to the African-American community by forming the first biracial committee and contributed to our community’s success in making changes.”
In February 1970, Greenville’s schools were integrated under a federal mandate that stoked the passions of the community.
To head off problems, Cooper White spoke to as many groups as possible about the need to make the transition one that would speak well for the city, according to an account shared in an interview with the former mayor in The Greenville News in 2011.
The Friday before the Monday integration, he invited every minister in the county to a luncheon and asked them to preach a Sunday sermon on the duty of obeying the law.
That Monday evening, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite praised Greenville as having integrated its schools that day “with grace and style.”
White kept a copy of the sermon at his church, Westminster Presbyterian, in a file of papers from his stint as mayor, said Greenville historian Judy Bainbridge, who has kept the file for years.
“He kept his kids in public school,” Bainbridge said. “He wanted integration to work. He was exceedingly aware of both the pressures on people and what they needed to do at a time of crisis in the community.”
White’s priority at the time was related to race relations. He pushed creation of a government human relations committee and the need for more mini-parks in black neighborhoods.
“Until then, there was nothing for the black community, recreationwise,” White told The News in 2011. “Nothing at all.”
Current City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming served on the biracial relations committee and remembers White as taking particular care to listen to concerns in the black community.
“He was quite instrumental in helping getting several situations figured out in our community,” Flemming said. “I was so impressed with him, because he was very compassionate to work with all citizens, not just work with some. He was a great man.”
White was a stockbroker who would regularly work 15-hour days — starting the day off with a 5 a.m. jog before heading to City Hall to conduct meetings, then switch to his private business work and switch back to politics in the evening.
In 1971, he decided to focus on his private-sector job and helped recruit Heller, who would prove to be Greenville’s most-influential mayor and a chief architect of today’s downtown revitalization.