His former press secretary, Andy Brack, confirmed his death.
Like his colleague Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s senior senator, Hollings became governor, ran for president and was a revered populist who took care of the military, business interests and the folks back home.
Together, they were the nation’s longest-serving Senate pair from one state. When Thurmond died in 2003 at 100, he had been the Senate’s longest-tenured member after 48 years in office. Moreover, Hollings was junior senator for 36 years, itself a record, and his tenure of 38 years and 55 days, including more than two years fulfilling the term of a senator who died in office, made him the eighth longest-serving senator.
Thurmond, a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party, never relented in his opposition to full equality for black Americans. Hollings, while remaining a fiscal conservative, evolved into a social moderate, riding winds of change that swept the South as proponents of civil rights won court cases, staged protests and endured brutalities that shocked the nation’s conscience.
Having grown up in segregated Charleston, attended a segregated college and served in a segregated army, Hollings had little contact with poor black people and initially opposed civil rights legislation. Guided by NAACP officials, he toured poor black and white areas of his state in 1968 and 1969, and what he saw shocked him: rat-infested slums where families subsisted on grits and greens; children infected with worms, living in shacks without lights, heat or water; a mentally disabled mother of 10 who had never heard of food stamps.
“There is hunger in South Carolina,” a solemn Hollings told a Senate committee. “I know as a public servant I am late to the problem,” adding, “We’ve got work to do in our own backyard, just as anybody who’s candid knows he has work in his own backyard, and I’d rather clean it up than cover it up.”
The News and Courier of Charleston reported, “Senators, members of the press corps and visitors packed in the hearing room watched and listened in disbelief as Hollings detailed dozens of tragically poignant scenes of human suffering in his state.”
Despite their differences, Hollings and Thurmond had a relatively good relationship, collaborating on legislation and projects to benefit education, employment, textiles, tourism and other industries and small businesses in South Carolina.
Tall and trim, with a military bearing and a Charleston Tidewater drawl, Hollings, who was known as Fritz, began his career in 1949 as a state legislator and an orthodox segregationist, flying the Confederate battle flag, defending school segregation and denouncing the NAACP as subversive, illegal and “against our way of life in the South.”
But by 1963, ending his governorship, he accepted integration at Clemson University. “South Carolina is running out of courts,” he told state legislators. “This General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men. This should be done with dignity.” Weeks later, Harvey Gantt enrolled at Clemson without incident as its first black student.
By 1984, during a hopeless campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he called himself a centrist, “strong on defense and liberal on social issues.” He built his campaign around a spending freeze, but endorsed racial amity, the fight against poverty and a shift away from the Reagan administration’s use of military force and covert operations in Central America.
And by 2005, when he left the Senate, Hollings had established a long record of support for civil rights. He had also endorsed the Rev. Jesse Jackson for president in 1988, and had voted in 1991 to confirm Clarence Thomas as the second black justice of the Supreme Court.
Reminded by Mike Wallace, in a 2004 interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS, that he had voted against the 1967 nomination of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice, Hollings expressed regret, but offered an excuse. “I couldn’t get re-elected,” he said. “That’s the honest answer. If I had voted for him, I might as well withdraw from the race. It was political.”
Ernest Frederick Hollings was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 1, 1922, to Adolph G. and Wilhelmine Meyer Hollings. His family of paper mill proprietors went bankrupt in the Depression. He attended public schools, but was raised in an affluent neighborhood now on the National Register of Historic Places. He graduated in 1942 from The Citadel, the military college in Charleston. In World War II, he was an Army artillery combat officer in North Africa, France and Germany and was discharged a captain in 1945.
In 1946, he married Patricia Salley. They had four children, Michael, Helen, Patricia and Ernest, and were divorced in 1970. His daughter Patricia died in 2001. In 1971, he married Rita Liddy, who died in 2012.
He graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1947, and after practicing law for a year, began a political career that would span a half-century. He served three terms in the state House of Representatives, from 1949 to 1954, and was elected speaker pro tempore in 1951 and 1953. He defended school segregation, but supported sales taxes to improve black schools.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 1954 and governor in 1958. The Confederate battle flag flew over the statehouse in Columbia during his term. While public schools remained segregated, he sought to improve education, raising teachers’ salaries and founding technical schools and an educational television network. He also promoted industry and jobs, and in 1960 campaigned for John F. Kennedy for president.
Constitutionally limited to a single four-year term as governor, from 1959 to 1963, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1962. But the incumbent winner, Sen. Olin D. Johnston, died in 1965, and Hollings won a special election in 1966 to succeed him. In the Senate, he opposed civil rights and welfare legislation, and won re-election in 1968 to a full six-year term. Later in his Senate career, he remained an advocate for military spending and balanced budgets.
He was also a critic of the oil and gas industries, proposing laws to repeal depletion allowances for major producers and opposing price deregulation. He also opposed cuts in food stamps and legal services for the poor, and sided with liberals on tax relief for low-income families, funding for day care centers and laws to ban ocean dumping and protect marine life.
His run for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination fizzled in the New Hampshire primary, where he won 4 percent of the vote. The Democratic nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, lost the general election to President Ronald Reagan.
Hollings remained popular in South Carolina, winning elections comfortably. In retirement, he wrote columns for South Carolina newspapers and HuffPost, taught at the Charleston School of Law, founded a scholarship program and established the Hollings Center for International Dialogue to foster understanding between America and nations with predominantly Muslim populations.
He was also the author of “The Case Against Hunger: A Demand for a National Policy” (1970), and “Making Government Work” (2008, with Kirk Victor), which answered, as he put it, “the critics who reflexively disparage government” and presented a case for righting the direction of a federal government that he said had “gone off course.”
“The greed of capitalism has reached compatibility with the greed of politics,” he wrote. “The capitalist is divorced from country to seek profit, and the politician is divorced from country to seek contributions.” But he insisted that “government has worked before, and we can make it work again.”
He is survived by three children, Michael Hollings, Helen Hollings Reardon and Ernest Hollings III; a sister, Barbara Hollings Siegling; seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.