By Mark A. Leon
A leader is not defined by his/her contributions, but the influence in creating a better life for future generations. Fifty years ago, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. walked into the realm of public office, just two years out of law school, as a devoted ambassador to the fine people of South Carolina. In that turbulent year of 1968, the country was torn by racial tensions highlighted by the Orangeburg massacre, Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Presidential hopeful, Robert F. Kennedy.
Joseph P. Riley, Jr. never waived from his commitment to bring social justice to South Carolina. Nearly 50 years later, in June 2015, on the steps of Mother Emanuel, the world witnessed a man of vision, nobility and strength lead a city and a country out of the trenches of evil to once again overcome, as he uttered the words, “Our hearts are broken”.
On Saturday evening, February 10, 2018, the Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University, honored Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. with the 2018 James F. Barker Ethics in Action Award. In the four years this honor has been bestowed, this is the first year the recipient came from the Lowcountry and what a deserving individual.
As The Post and Courier columnist and author of The Mayor Brian Hicks noted in his introduction, one of the challenges he faced writing the biography on Former Mayor Riley, was conducting research on the history of a politician who has always been so ethical. That brought a laugh from the audience and set the tone for an evening of emotionally driven shared stories and reflection.
The forward for the biography, The Mayor was written by the beloved and late author Pat Conroy, who described Charleston as “One of the most magical places on Earth” and credited Mayor Riley for the city it has become.
One of the most emotional speeches was provided with articulation and transparent warmth by law partner and best friend to the Former Mayor for fifty years, Capers G. Barr III. His anecdotal look at the public life of Former Mayor Riley through his own eyes was a poignant tribute, outlining the courage and unwavering dedication Mr. Riley has given to the city of Charleston and its people.
As Former Mayor Riley took the stage, the entire room stood up and applauded for nearly a full minute expressing their gratitude for the lifetime of service of a man who has left a legacy that will continue for centuries to come. In his humbled manner, Mr. Riley accepted the award with grace and spoke with eloquence and warmth as he did so many times before. His presence, with passion and energy, was felt throughout the room.
As he reflected on his childhood, he shared to the audience that his parents never taught him about ethics, it was just the way they lived every day.
In his soft humble Southern voice, Mr. Riley spoke on the evolution of Charleston, its lessons in architecture, the nature warmth and the Southern pride that is the cornerstone of the Lowcountry. In his words describing the expressionism of Charleston, the Mayor said, “the city teaches you lessons in architecture and design you might not ever know.”
As a true educator, the most important reminder came at the end of his speech when Former Mayor Riley declared, that in all his years of leadership and education, it was all of us that were in that room and living in this community that represent what Charleston has become.
I found myself thinking during the evening, how does one transform a city that was saturated in decay and waste, where going North of Calhoun was dangerous to a city thriving in culture and one of the top vacation destinations in the world? My answer came in the words of the individuals that spoke praise and Mayor Riley himself. It takes risk, vision and a partnership with the people.
His bold partnership with the African American community and tactics of diplomacy helped bridge the gap of racial tension in the South and set the stage for a new generation of socially accepting citizens.
It is fair to say that not many cities have witnessed such a transformation as Charleston in the last forty and even notably the last ten years. Today, Charleston is thriving with Spoleto, SEWE, a newly renovated airport that hosts 4.2 million visitors annually, Boeing, Volvo, Benefitfocus, a flourishing tech community and an economic renaissance that is exploding. All this from the leadership of a man, short in stature, but larger than life.
The Rutland Institute chose a worthy advocate for their 2018 James F. Barker Ethics in Action Award recipient in Joseph P. Riley Jr.. He is a man that has solidified his legacy and there are no signs of slowing down.
Photo Credit: Matt Crump