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A Seat at The Table: James Felder's life is defined by service to his community

The civil rights activist from Sumter, South Carolina, who marched with King and buried President Kennedy, now wants to help preserve the history of the movement.

SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. — James "Jim" Felder's life is defined by service to the community, which began in his hometown of Sumter, South Carolina.  

"I had great mentors who were civil rights fighters all their lives, here from Sumter," Felder said. "So I had no choice but to get involved."

Felder grew up on the Southside of Sumter. 

"Over in that area, there were thriving black businesses," he recounted. "The only reason we had to come across the bridge was to go to the post office or the bank, so we didn't experience the kind of segregation that some people in other places did," Felder said.

Credit: James Felder
James Felder, Bishop James and Congressman John Lewis

Felder took the lessons he learned in Sumter to Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). He held numerous leadership positions, including student body president. He was also the quarterback of the football team. 

During his time at Clark, Felder helped start and lead several civil rights demonstrations. One, in particular, in downtown Atlanta alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and 4,000 university students in 1960.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Felder spent two years in the United States Army, serving with the Honor Guard Ceremonial Unit in Washington, D.C.

"I did more than 1,100 funerals in Arlington Cemetery during that time period," Felder said. "You're standing there over the gravesite, holding the flag while they are going through the last rights. And you are looking at the family, and some guys could not handle it. They would cry with the family, so they had to leave and go someplace else."

"When you do that many funerals, you become kind of cold and callous, and it becomes just a job," Felder explained. "That's what happened to me."

He served as a pallbearer for assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers with the Honor Guard. "That was my first assassination funeral at Arlington, then Kennedy," Felder recounted. 

In November 1963, he was selected to head the casket team for the late President John F. Kennedy. 

"It was an honor," Felder emphasized. "Kennedy was the first president I voted for."

Credit: File
James Felder, seen in the front on the right, carries President John F. Kennedy's casket inside Arlington National Cemetery.

RELATED: 56 years later, pallbearer for President Kennedy's funeral reflects

He earned the Army Commendation Medal for his service.

After Felder got out of the service, he did not return to Arlington Cemetery for 20 years.

Felder's selection to serve with the Honor Guard represented only the tenth black American to be a part of this unit. 

After his tour of duty with the Army, he attended Howard University School of Law. "I changed from medicine to law because of what I had done in the civil rights movement," Felder explained. 

Felder credits his change in studies to Donald Hollowell, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Martin Luther King, Jr. several times.

"I sat there in the courtroom watching Don Hollowell, and I said, 'I'm going to be a lawyer,'" Felder recounted.

He graduated in June of 1967 and returned to South Carolina to run the state's Voter Education Project. 

"Lyndon Johnson passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and a bunch of foundations put together a pool of money and sent it to Atlanta to do voter registration throughout the South in black communities," Felder explained. 

He said he was tapped to lead the project by Vernon Jordan, the second executive director of the Voter Education Project.  

"I ran the Voter Education Project for two years," Felder said. "We registered over 200,000 black voters during that time."

The next stop on his journey would take him to the South Carolina Statehouse. "I was drafted by Miss (Modjeska) Simpkins and others to run for the legislature," he said. 

In 1970, Felder became one of the first three black men elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives (1970-1972) since Reconstruction.

Felder said they received a cold reception from fellow lawmakers. "It was like we were furniture in the room," Felder recounted. "Just ignored us, completely, for the first two weeks." Felder said things turned around when they "realized our vote was equal to their vote, and they needed the votes."

He explained that he developed friendly relationships with the other lawmakers, even enjoying drinks together after the session. 

Felder believes there was more cooperation during his time in the legislature, compared to recent years. "Some people say the three of us -- I.S. Leevy Johnson, Herbert Fielding, and I -- got more done than the 43 who are there now," he said. "The older guys, we respected them, they respected us. And they knew that things had gone wrong in the past, so they were willing to cooperate with us, and we got a lot of good legislation passed."

Felder says the divisiveness has kept him away from the statehouse. "They became red and blue, red and blue; they became party loyalists over people."

In 1973, Felder became the first African American assistant solicitor in South Carolina. When reflecting on that period, he said, "I was able to help more people in that job than any of the other things that I have done."

His position in the solicitor's office drew both praise and criticism from the black community, historically oppressed by the justice system. "It worked out after a while when they realized that I was going to be fair, fair to the law, and fair to them," Felder said. "We're giving them (black community) the same treatment that the other community got."

Felder has continued to be a champion for civil rights and voter education. He still runs the Voter Education Project, focusing on getting more people to the voting booth. 

"Our problem today is turnout, getting out to vote," he said. "We could change things, but we have got to concentrate on votes."

Low voter turnout is an issue that continues to plague local, state, and national elections. "We are only turning out 53%, 54%, 55%," he stressed. "That's not just in the black community. That's in the white community also."

Felder still lives in Columbia, where he still serves the community. He is active in the Columbia branch of the NAACP, the AME church, and is the director of the Lincoln High School Museum.

The museum building dates back to 1874 and is part of the former Lincoln High School in Sumter, the oldest black high school in South Carolina. It was a public school until 1969. Felder and other Lincoln High School alumni were able to purchase the building from the church that owned it with donations and funding from state and federal government.

"In my later years here, I'm focusing more on the preservation of our history, preservation of our institutions," said Felder, who continues to write as a way to preserve and protect those stories.

He has authored four books, including: "I Buried John F. Kennedy," "Civil Rights in South Carolina," and "The Making of an AME Bishop."

He is currently working on his fifth book and then plans to write his autobiography.

Credit: James Felder
James Felder and his two grandsons, Lance II and Sean

Felder is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He has been a member for 60 years and has served in various leadership roles.   

He married his high school sweetheart and has two children, Jimmy and Adrienne. He has two grandchildren, Lance II and Sean.

 

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