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L. Mendel Rivers Collection

Biographical Information

    Lucius Mendel Rivers was born in 1905 just west of Charleston, South Carolina in the small town of Gumville.  His father, Lucius Rivers was a cotton farmer who ran a turpentine mill. When Mendel was ten years old his father died suddenly of pneumonia.  The senior Rivers' death sent the family's fortunes into decline. 
Eventually, the bank foreclosed on the farm, and forced the Rivers' clan to sell most of its possessions.  Rivers' mother, Henrietta, used what money was left over from the sale to move the family to the north area of Charleston County where she purchased a two-story home near Montague Avenue.  Despite having a comfortable home, the family was far from well off financially.  Young Mendel rose at 4:00 A.M. to milk cows and deliver newspapers before riding a trolley to Charleston to attend school.  His mother also took in boarders to improve the family's financial situation.

Rivers graduated from High School in 1926.  He was admitted to the College of Charleston with the intention of becoming a lawyer.  He left the college after three years to attend the law school at the University of South Carolina.  Rivers passed the South Carolina bar exam in 1932, and entered a law practice with Joseph Fromberg.

Shortly after beginning his law practice, Rivers ran for a seat in the South Carolina General Assembly.  Although his initial attempt at electoral success failed, Rivers ran again a year later when a special election was held to fill a vacant seat in the Charleston County delegation to the State House of Representatives.  In his second election, Rivers campaigned under the slogan:  "Give the Northern End of the County Representation."  This time, Rivers won.  He was re-elected in 1934 and won the Democratic Primary in 1936.

Before Rivers could defend his seat in the general election of 1936, he was offered a job as an assistant to the Attorney General of the United States.  The offer was made at the behest of Thomas McMillan, the congressman from South Carolina's First Congressional District, who viewed Rivers as a possible rival for his congressional seat, and sought to make an ally out of Rivers before they became competitors.  Whether or not he was aware of the congressman's motives, Rivers accepted the offer, which took him first to Washington D.C., then to Louisiana, and, finally, to Georgia to work for the federal government.

In 1938, Rivers returned to Charleston to help McMillan stave off a difficult challenge for the Democratic nomination from Russell McGowan.  Charleston Mayor Burnet R. Maybank, who was running for governor, and Henry Lockwood, who was the favorite to replace Maybank as the city's mayor, endorsed McGowan.  Thanks to a strong showing in the rural areas of the First Congressional District, McMillan narrowly won the nomination.  Just two days after the primary, Rivers and Margaret Middleton were married at Charleston's historic St. Michael's Episcopal Church.  Several months later, Tom McMillan died unexpectedly leaving his wife to fill his congressional seat until the next election.

In February of 1940, Rivers resigned his job with the Justice Department and returned to Charleston to "practice law." Rivers' return to the city prompted the Charleston News and Courier to speculate that he intended to seek McMillan's old congressional seat.

The political establishment endorsed Alfred H. "Fritz" von Kolnitz.  Von Kolnitz was a successful businessman and a former professional baseball player.  He was also a World War I fighter pilot.  Despite his credentials, von Kolnitz was not a gifted speaker.  He lacked Rivers' flair for impromptu speeches. He did, however, have a solid backing in the city of Charleston.
Rivers' strategy was to keep the returns in Charleston close and bank on strong support from the surrounding areas.  The campaign strategy proved successful.  Rivers lost Charleston County, but he overwhelmingly defeated von Kolnitz in the rural areas of the district.

When he entered the United States House of Representatives, Rivers was assigned to the Naval Affairs Committee, which was merged with the Military Affairs Committee to form the Armed Services Committee after World War II.  Rivers' remained on the Armed Services Committee throughout his career.  In 1965, he was named Chairman of the committee.  He served in that capacity until his death in 1970.

Rivers was instrumental in several aspects of the administrative policy of the Vietnam War.  He helped define the terms of the draft, and he aided in securing funding for military activities.  He is generally credited with helping to build the "nuclear navy" and with supporting the development of the "C5-A" aircraft.  Rivers acquired a reputation as a defender of the military and as a war "hawk."  He prided himself on his reputation as a champion of the ordinary service man.

Rivers was also active in the fight to save segregation.  He was a strident defender of the racial status quo.  In 1948, he was the first South Carolina Congressman to declare himself a "Dixiecrat" and openly support J. Strom Thurmond's candidacy for the presidency.  He bolted the Democratic Party again in 1952 when he supported Dwight D. Eisenhower in the presidential election.  Rivers felt that the Democratic Party had adopted a "liberal" civil rights platform in the contest.  Although he publicly supported the Democratic Party for the remainder of his career, numerous sources charged that he had secretly aided George Wallace's "independent" campaign for president in 1968.  Also, in a 1956 questionnaire, Rivers was the only South Carolina congressman to declare himself a member of the White Citizens' Council.

Throughout his near three decades in Congress, Rivers was never seriously challenged in either the Democratic Primary or the general election.  He was instrumental in the development of numerous defense industries in his district, especially the tremendous growth of the Charleston Naval Base.  Rivers also fought to make the College of Charleston a state institution in the late 1960s.

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