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Encomium: a farewell to Sarah Leverette

by Sydney Ford and Allen Wallace

Columbia, and the entire world, lost a legend Wednesday: a woman who managed to be a giant despite being the smallest person in most rooms.

Sarah Leverette spent her 99 years fighting to make the world a better place. She stood up for those to whom society denied rights, and she had no fear of any of those on the other side of the battle, no matter how powerful.

No one who met Ms. Leverette or heard her speak will soon forget her. Even in her nineties, she was a leader. On June 20, 2015, with temperatures breaking the 100-degree mark, a crowd of hundreds gathered at the State House to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. Just three days earlier, nine people were murdered in the name of that flag in a Charleston church, and the crowd came that day to say it was the final straw.

The speakers were a prestigious group, delivering powerful speeches: South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph, South Carolina Progressive Network leader Brett Bursey, and many more. As they spoke, Ms. Leverette sat on stage, already 95 years old but never complaining about the heat. She was barely tall enough to be seen behind the lectern when she stepped forward, but it mattered not at all. In the middle of a host of powerful voices, she blew all the rest away.

“We have sat back for years and let this happen. We cannot let it continue,” she said. “This problem not only asks to be addressed, it demands to be addressed.”

Before that day, few would have believed the fight to remove the flag could ever be won in South Carolina. That afternoon, listening to Ms. Leverette speak, the hundreds of us in the crowd had no doubt that it would soon be gone. It was.

As one of the first female graduates of the USC School of Law, one of the first female lawyers in South Carolina and the first female faculty member of USC School of Law, the impact of her willingness to defy the expectations of the once closed-door, all-male South Carolina legal community continues to this day in the career of every female attorney in the state.

Ms. Leverette was born in Iva, SC in 1920, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of South Carolina’s School of Law in 1943, where she was the only female in her class.

“They kind of ignored me. So that kind of lit a fire under me,” she said. When she graduated, the law office doors were closed to her as a female, so she became a law librarian and taught legal writing and research at the USC School of Law for 25 years.

Leverette also fought for equal pay serving on and eventually chairing the Workers Compensation Commission during the 1970s.

“We haven’t gotten very far with that inequality and haven’t done what we should,” she said. “There is a law but people are breaking the law and we are doing nothing about it.”

In 1950, Ms. Leverette was a founding member of the SC League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group that works to educate the public on the issues so they become more involved in the voting process and in their communities. Leverette said we need more men and women in public service. She pointed out that SC ranks last in the nation for the number of women holding elected office in the State Senate and House. In the 1960s she worked with the League of Women Voters to push for the right of women to serve on juries in South Carolina.

“It took the League of Women Voters 10 years of advocacy and application to the Legislature to get women the right to serve on juries,” she said. South Carolina was the next-to-last state in the country to make the change.

Ms. Leverette won countless honors in her long and distinguished career, including the Social Justice Luminary Award from the University of South Carolina, the 2017 Rev. Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney Award for Justice from the Appleseed Legal Justice Center and the 2018 South Carolina Woman of Achievement from the Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization. The South Carolina Women Lawyers Association awarded her their highest honor, the Jean Galloway Bissell Award. WREN (the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network) recognized her in March 2018 for her lifelong advocacy for equality. She also earnd the Girl Scouts of Congaree Area Women of Distinction Award and the SC Department of Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Spirit Award for Excellence in Consumer Advocacy.

None of the awards were as important to Ms. Leverette as the victories. Women serving on juries and as lawyers, standing as equals in every way. A State House lawn free of the flag of slavery. Fairer laws for workers compensation and equal pay. Marriage equality. The end of Jim Crow. Women in the State House, in the Governor’s office, and anywhere else they choose to be.

Ms. Leverette leaves behind a better world than she found. South Carolina would not have made the progress it has without her. She inspired countless women and men to follow the banner she carried, and fight with her to keep things changing for the better.

Ms. Leverette gave us 99 years, and her loss will be felt for many more. No one can fix all that is wrong with the world in a single lifetime, but what Ms. Leverette leaves us is the greatest of all her gifts: the certain knowledge that the generations she inspired are ready. The fight isn’t over. Ms. Leverette earned her rest by preparing us all to continue it.

Goodbye, ma’am. Thank you for everything.

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