Having found eager recruits to join their cause, Hilton Headers steeled themselves for a multiyear battle against the company and its backers. In the first week of January 1970, Orion Hack—brother to Fred Sr. and vice president of the Hilton Head Company—organized a fourday, all-expenses-paid conference to call attention to the pollution threat. Although the offer of a prepaid trip to the island was in itself enticing, Hack pitched the conference to ecologists and environmental activists as an opportunity to advance their shared cause against the backdrop of “one of the few large areas of estuaries left on the East Coast still unpolluted by industrial waste.” The symposium—titled “South Carolina in Crisis!”—drew representatives from environmental organizations within the state (including the Black fishing cooperative), across the South, and from better known national groups such as the National Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth.19
However, such activists did not heap unequivocal praise on the developers’ efforts. Although they clasped hands in an uneasy embrace to voice support for the anti-BASF forces, ecologists like Barry Commoner and Joe Browder also emphasized that these issues served as only one battle in a larger war against polluters. Even more than that, they cast skeptical glances at Fraser, in particular. Soon after the symposium, one attendee who described Fraser as a “parasite” explained, “We’re not in this to bail out Hilton Head.” Similarly, a biologist from the University of South Carolina lamented, “It’s a shame what they’ve done to that island,” referencing his studies of the area’s ecosystems just a decade before the first resorts were built. Unimpressed by the island’s labyrinthine roads named for various bird species, the activists and scientists who attended the symposium were clear-eyed about the people with whom they joined forces. Fraser and Hack’s focus on preserving a wilderness landscape for human beings went against the principles of these environmentalists, but the activists operated with a righteous zeal that saw the developers not only as strategic allies but as potential converts to the broader cause.20
While plant opponents gained momentum after the conference, the pro-BASF forces expressed surprise at the swift and ferocious media campaign directed their way. In early 1970, they struggled to negotiate with the developer–fisher alliance. Upon concluding that “nothing we can say … will satisfy those who have declared their opposition,” BASF president Dr. Hans Lautenschlager asked Governor McNair to form a committee to consider how the state could beef up its pollution laws. Privately, McNair bristled at such a suggestion. But soon, he complied out of deference to the company’s top brass. While BASF’s leadership grew nervous about the gathering storm of negative publicity, the governor hoped these meager concessions would satiate the opposition long enough for him to launch a public relations counteroffensive.21
Despite earlier attempts at negotiation, state officials and local boosters lambasted what one local journalist termed the “fat cat refuge” developers built on the island. Namely, boosters characterized Fraser and his ilk’s criticism of “incompatible” industries as nothing more than naked self-interest disguised as ecological concern. After touring a BASF plant in Europe, state Senator James Harrelson scoffed at their protests, saying, “I don’t think they’ll ever find what they call ‘compatible industry’. … They probably wouldn’t like to see any industry, even an ice cream pie factory!” An editorial in the Charleston News and Courier also needled Fraser’s situational ethics. “When a developer buys a primitive sea island, cuts the timber, drains the marshes … and builds houses, motels and golf courses, the conservationists have a fit,” but “when someone tries to build a factory near the developer’s island, the developer and his new population have a fit.” In a letter to a Beaufort newspaper, one local farmer charged that Hilton Headers wanted “to make a rich man’s preserve of the entire area,” since they would be “horrified at the prospect of having to live in proximity to several thousand common working people.” This line of discourse was part and parcel of a broader strategy to paint the island’s developers as snobbish newcomers who gave no thought to the economic plight of the area surrounding their plush resorts.22
In contrast to claims that the BASF opposition represented the petulant clamoring of a privileged elite, the HHFC seized a pivotal role in the movement. In February 1970, the Black shrimpers joined with two smaller seafood cooperatives to file a lawsuit against BASF, arguing that the chemical company failed to comply with the new requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This announcement signaled the beginning of the end for the plant’s proponents. J. Wilton Graves, a local political boss, lashed out at the cooperative for “allowing themselves to be influenced by legal brainstorming and selfish interests.” Contrary to Graves’s claims, such statements missed the long game strategy adopted by Barnwell, Jones, and the HHFC brain trust. Although white resort owners did underwrite their lawsuit, the HHFC regarded the arrangement as temporary but necessary in a broader campaign for economic self-reliance and community preservation. For some African American residents, the cooperative offered the best way to reassert their dwindling presence on the island.23
Undoubtedly, white Hilton Headers cheered the increased visibility of Black fishers. Although tourism accounted for most of the island’s economic impact, the symbolic presence of Blackrun fishing operations provided a more poignant talking point for their white neighbors. For example, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times—paid for by a statewide environmental group founded by the Hack family—featured a picture of Black fishers working on their boats. The ad’s text warned that the plant would ensure that “these proud, hard-working fishermen of today will be unemployed or on welfare tomorrow causing grave unemployment in this poverty pocket.” Meanwhile, other white island residents understood the role of African American maritime work in a more paternalistic sense. Walter Greer, a prominent Hilton Head artist whose landscapes of Lowcountry life depicted, in his words, “the negro performing tasks indicative to his skills in this part of South Carolina,” sent a letter to the governor protesting the plant. After citing his paintings, Greer asserted that “their life and pleasure comes from the tidal waters” and that “there is no occupation available to the underskilled individual when his aquatic livelihood is obliterated.” By deploying the nostalgic imagery of Black men working on the water, white islanders portrayed a cooperative made up of quaint figures that fit their Arcadian vision of life on an unsullied island. Yet, if anyone could claim a right to belong on Hilton Head, it was the Gullah communities of Black islanders who had lived there long before BASF came calling.24
Refusing to be dismissed by their white neighbors, some African Americans voiced support for BASF. These efforts reached a fever pitch in spring 1970 after Interior Secretary Walter Hickel intervened to stop the project temporarily. Just across the bridge from Hilton Head in the town of Bluffton, dozens of Black residents who formed the Bluffton Progressive Club got right to the point in a statement blasting the island’s developers: “Our labor[s] at low wages have contributed to Mr. Hack’s and Mr. Fraser’s success.” Meanwhile, local naacp chapters organized rallies across the area. One protest organized by local Black ministers began fifty miles to the west in Hampton County before taking a bus trip to Hilton Head to protest “the rich people … who are stopping [the plant].” In response to mounting anger over Hickel’s orders, such protests grew more frequent and intense, culminating in the raucous demonstration outside Fraser’s office in June 1970.25
Support for BASF among these African American communities grew out of a desire to ensure their survival through economic development. Although these groups recognized the value of independent Black businesses like the cooperative, they also asserted that putting all their eggs in the basket of traditional maritime or agricultural industries was foolish after nearly a decade of Black land loss and with better guarantees for equal hiring in the manufacturing sector. Although groups like the Progressive Club gave full-throated support to the plant, they shared a common desire with their fellow Gullah communities to preserve Black places in the Lowcountry.