Orangeburg native James “Jim” E. Sulton Sr. has worn many hats in his life son, husband, father, U.S. soldier, business owner, community leader, civil rights activist.
But it is for his work in the latter role that Sulton has been honored for his display of perseverance by the Orangeburg County Community of Character committee for the month of October.
“Living in a segregated society, you had to have perseverance really to survive,” Sulton said. “While you didn’t like the segregated society in which you had to live … it was upon you to do something, to change it, and you had to have perseverance just to do it.
“You couldn’t talk about it and wait for it to happen, and it was not going to be easy. There was a whole lot of stuff you had to put up with.”
In the late 1940s, when Sulton arrived back in Orangeburg following military service and college, and through the Civil Rights Movement, he became active in voter-registration drives, led the first march in downtown Orangeburg to the mayor’s office to make an official complaint about the city’s segregated systems and was among the first to “sit in” at Kress 5&10.
Because of his actions in the move to gain equality for blacks, Sulton was the object of arrests and risked the service-station business he and his brother, Roy, ran when several parts salesmen gave into the pressure from whites and stopped delivering needed items to the station. That led to the black leaders forming a policy of “selective buying” that Sulton has outlined in past T&D articles.
Sulton said because his parents raised him and his siblings with good character, integrity and honesty, he was able to hold fast to his beliefs and march forward with the movement.
“Those people (my parents and their peers) worked hard to see that their children would not suffer the indignity that they had to,” he said.
The pivotal moment in Sulton’s life, when he knew he had to make a difference for himself, his children and future generations, was following a stint in Germany during the latter stages of World War II. He served in the U.S. Army.
A member of the German army and a prisoner under his unit’s command told the young Sulton that he was a fool for fighting for a country in which he had no rights.
“It instilled in me here’s a man telling me here I am fighting for a country that I can’t enjoy, all my country has to offer, because of my race,” he said.
Sulton said that stuck in his brain, especially after arriving back in the States to find Germans working in the local hospitals as interns the same hospitals where blacks were segregated.
“Now here’s people that we had fought, that I had fought, and they come into this country and have more liberties and opportunities than I had,” he said. “I made a vow that that would never happen to my children, that I wouldn’t let it happen to me, as far as I could go. (I knew that) somehow, if I didn’t give up, that things would change, and through God’s good graces, I have seen many changes.
“Things are far from right now, but they’re sure better, and I hope that the youngsters that are coming up behind me realize that nothing is free. You got to work for what you achieve or try your best to be the best that you can be.”
It all leads back to perseverance for Sulton. Because of his, and those like him, persistence in the fight for equality, Sulton’s children were able to take advantage of more opportunities, as have countless individuals since the movement, and are successful in their chosen fields today.
He said prior to his interview with The T&D that he looked up the word “character” and tried to pinpoint where he fit in to the list of definitions. He found it in integrity and morality.
“I think if you can satisfy those two aspects of the definition, then the rest doesn’t matter it will fall into place,” he said.
Clemmie Webber, who has lived across the street from Sulton for 35 years, said her neighbor has always felt strongly about equal education opportunities for all people, regardless of race.
“He sets his mind to something, nobody can move him,” she said. “I can’t think of anything of significance that he disregarded, didn’t carry to completion.” She added that family is very important to Sulton, as he “did what was necessary where his children were concerned.”
Disheartening to Sulton, however, is seeing the way mankind treats one another today, but he has yet to say the situation is hopeless. After all, he lived through one of the most trying times in American history.
“I’ve been given credit for a lot of things that were not done by me alone, and the most respect that I have are for people … that had so little to offer but gave so much,” he said, “lost their jobs during the boycott and still maintained their dignity and looked to people like me for guidance because they had trust that I wouldn’t take advantage by telling them to do something that I knew inherently was wrong.”
Lee Harter, Times and Democrat editor and co-leader with Sulton on the Palmetto Project-sponsored Project Hope race relations effort in the 1990s, said Sulton is one of those people who, although he lived through the civil rights era and was forced to deal with the trials of inequality, doesn’t look to the past to judge the present.
“He’s not a bitter person,” Harter said. “He’s one of the most open-minded people you could meet.”
Austin Cunningham, longtime Orangeburg resident and community leader, said he has known Sulton for many years and can attest to his drive.
“He’s just a man if you get him to do something, he’s going to do it very well,” he said. “He’s just a splendid figure in Orangeburg.”
- T&D Staff Writer Wendy Jeffcoat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 803-534-1060.