South Carolina

Rhett Jackson, longtime civic, religious leader, dies

Rhett Jackson
Rhett Jackson File photograph

Rhett Jackson, a longtime Columbia area civic and religious leader with a gentle, happy nature, died Thursday night in his early 90s.

Jackson ran a prominent Columbia bookshop for more than 20 years and spent much of life discussing theological and social questions, considering how they relate to practical life and then, putting his principles into action. All his life, he fought for racial equality.

“He was one of those people who make the community worth living in,” said Pete O’Boyle, fellow church member at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church.

Born in Florence in 1925, Rhett Jackson is perhaps best known as the operator of the “Happy Bookseller,” a business that he and his wife, Betty, established and ran first in Richland Mall in 1975. It eventually moved to a location on Forest Drive, in Forest Acres, but wherever it was, it was a genial gathering spot for anyone interested in the life of the mind, or who just wanted to buy a book or a map for a gift.

“I love books,” Jackson told a reporter once. “I just thought it would be fun selling books, reading book catalogues and going to book conventions. Just to be around books.”

But running a bookshop had a serious side, he also said. “Nobody makes a lot of money in the book business. In the days I ran it, you could get a comfortable living. I always felt that I rendered a great community service to people: It was as much a community service as it was a business.”

His book customers included all kinds of people, including former chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals and former president of the College of Charleston, Alex Sanders.

“Rhett was gregarious and also the most moral person I have ever known,” Sanders said Friday. “He could make you do the right thing without embarrassing you.”

From an early age as a boy in segregated Florence, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s and 1930s, Jackson saw with clarity that treating African-Americans as inferiors was wrong. He liked to tell the story that while working as a boy in a Florence drugstore, he was first struck by the injustice of South Carolina’s apartheid system when he saw the drugstore owner make black customers surrender their places in line and let white customers go first.

Later in life, Jackson – a lifelong Methodist – became a leader in the United Methodist Church’s internal debate on integrating its churches.

In 1963, for example, while most South Carolina whites were still insisting on white supremacy and its fiction of “separate but equal,” Jackson spoke to a Methodist gathering at Wofford College in which he declared, “We are taking reluctant steps indeed in the areas of race relations, prisoner rehabilitation, alcoholic problems, economic injustices, dope addiction, and others. In these areas the church is being overtaken from the rear. ... These are the cutting edges of the world that Christ calls us to. But, we aren’t there! We aren’t there!”

Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. NAACP, on Friday called Jackson one of those rare people who could take a stand against injustice.

“Martin Luther King had a quote about the ultimate measure of a man being “not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,’” Randolph said. “Rhett Jackson was that kind of man, he took courageous stands during a very difficult time in South Carolina’s history.”

Jackson was one of a group of white people in the Methodist church who were responsible for the merging of the two branches of the church in South Carolina, one white, and one black, recalled Hayes Mizell, a longtime friend and fellow church member at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church.

“He was a wonderful exemplar of civic leadership and civil rights leadership,” Mizell said.

Jackson also served on the boards for S.C. Parole and Community Corrections, the Alston Wilkes Society, Claflin College and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council. He also was a member of United 2000, a citizens group opposed to the display of the Confederate flag on public property. And he eloquently represented the interests of independent booksellers across the nation.

Funeral arrangements for Jackson are incomplete, but they include a memorial service, according to a notice from Trenholm Road United Methodist.

Besides his wife, Betty, Jackson is survived by a twin brother, Larry, a former president of Lander College.

Jackson’s papers, documenting his decades of activism and interests, are at the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina.