Editor’s note: Following is the text for the introduction to a screening of “The Corridor of Shame” at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort to be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at the USCB Center for the Arts.
I am most honored to join the Pat Conroy Literary Festival to celebrate the legacy of one of the most unique and spirited writers of our time, and equally pleased that this festival’s theme is the transformative power of education.
It is no secret that Pat Conroy loved teaching above all other vocations, an affection that rose from the gifted teachers he encountered in his junior and senior years at Beaufort High School when he first arrived in this community.
Many of those teachers, including Gene Norris, Grace Dennis and Dutchin Harden and others, were assembled by the high school’s extraordinary principal, Bill Dufford. Pat’s classmates, some of whom became National Merit Scholars, lifted this once shy youth to new levels of self-confidence, embracing and inspiring him. Those years in this welcoming community set him on the path, as he would later say so often, to the man he would become.
By the time he graduated from The Citadel, which exposed him to more influential academicians, Pat was fully committed to the conviction that teaching was the noblest profession on earth and he held to that notion for the rest of his life.
From those who saw that spark in his young eyes, he discovered the wonders of reading and writing, and he lived over a half century paying homage to those from whom he received these gifts.
Pat Conroy gave our world more than great literature. In his many appearances and interviews, he shared his demons as well as his passions.
He taught us to love our families even when they were the sources of pain and rejection, how to appreciate the salty air he breathed, the tides he claimed that make Beaufort one of the most enchanting places on the planet.
On top of all that, his pugnacious spirit drove into the great struggles of his time: for those children on Daufuskie Island imprisoned by the very geography of their birth; for the rights of women everywhere; and most notably to breach the walls of The Citadel he knew should be open to all who seek its embrace; for social justice and equality in a state where the Civil War is not yet over and the descendants of the formerly enslaved are still not free.
His years on the island he called Yamacraw in “The Water Is Wide,” with photos by Billy and Paul Keyserling, penetrated his conscience and made him, in his early twenties, a warrior for racial justice and quality education; a spokesman for the voiceless; a voracious opponent of foolish censors who sought to ban books or close libraries. In spite of a demanding writer’s life, you could find him on the battlefields of his time, and no one could throw a punch like the “Prince of Tides.”
When I was asked to produce and direct a documentary on the struggle for equitable funding for our poorest school districts, I had been providing pro bono public relations service to the legal team headed by Beaufort native Carl Epps, known in these parts as Butch, and the late Steve Morrison. Carl had brought the lawsuit on behalf of the original 40 school districts in 1993.
The State Supreme court ordered a full trial on the merits of the case, which took place in 2004 in the small town of Manning in Clarendon County in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision that ended segregated public schools in a rare unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court.
The 2004 trial lasted 103 days, the longest trial in the state’s history. This film is the story of that lawsuit.
Pat had been the grand marshal and featured speaker at the March for Education Equity in May 2004, and he gave a rousing speech on behalf of the rural schools in these impoverished districts and agreed quickly to appear in the documentary.
Scheduling him to be in the film would be an enormous challenge, but with the cunning cooperation of his wife, Cassandra King Conroy, and daughter Megan Conroy, we trapped Pat between a doctor’s appointment and an appearance at the school where Megan was teaching.
When we began the filming, Pat complimented me on the quality of the script I had written for his 2:47 introduction, and he said: “Bud, this is beautifully written.” But I had to confess that nearly all of it was taken directly from “The Water Is Wide.”
Today, the struggle for high-quality education for all the children of all the people of South Carolina continues, as our legislature has essentially ignored the favorable decision in the case handed down by the State Supreme Court in 2014. Nearly a quarter of a century of has passed and two generations of South Carolina students languish in schools ranked this year at 50th in the nation.
I thank you all for coming to see this work and invite each of you to join the fight for better education in our state. It is never too late to do the right thing.
And I thank Pat Conroy for the light he shined upon this issue, his beautiful words, his heartfelt empathy for his students, and the great love for them that began here in Beaufort where the once shy boy grew into the man he chose to become.
Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo Jr. produced and directed the 2005 documentary, “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.” He is coordinator of the S.C. Collaborative for Racial Reconciliation at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.