'We did what we had to do': Xanthene Norris, one of council members behind MLK Day

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Greenville County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris speaks during the dedication ceremony of the Hampton Avenue Bridge Friday, March 6, 2020.
Greenville County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris speaks during the dedication ceremony of the Hampton Avenue Bridge Friday, March 6, 2020.

States across the nation acted to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day an observed holiday with marches, parades and events in celebration of commemorating Dr. King after it became a federal holiday in 1986.

But South Carolina lagged behind and it wasn't until 2000 that the Palmetto State made Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official state holiday.

In Greenville, Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn't declared a holiday until Greenville County Council members pushed to make it one in 2006.

One of those determined council members, Xanthene Norris, 92, helped honor Dr. King's legacy. She is still serving on County Council and celebrating 25 years of service since first joining the council in 1997.

Norris attended Clark Atlanta University — then Clark College — where she met Dr. King while at Morehouse College. They were both a part of Greek Life, King a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and Norris a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

She later graduated from Clark College and received her master's degree from Furman University.

Norris and Greenville County Council member Lottie Gibson (2016) questioned why Greenville County did not observe MLK Day and fought with County Council until the council agreed that the day would be observed.

Some council members debated that the county would have to consider paying overtime to county employees and sheriff's deputies in order to work the holiday.

Related: Lottie Gibson remembered as tireless public servant

"The people on County Council thought we were crazy, but we insisted and said, 'Yes, we are gonna have it,'" Norris told The Greenville News.

Growing up in the segregated south, Norris watched her parents endure. She is a member of Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville where her mother started a daycare at the church. Her mother had previously been an educator in Travelers Rest but was treated poorly and left, Norris said.

After seeing what her mother had to go through and moving back to Greenville after college, Norris joined her mother in making positive changes for the community.

"That's what gave me all of my ideas," Norris said of her mother's experiences. "I didn't have to, but I wanted to (move back)."

Norris, a longtime educator who grew up in Greenville's Southernside community, taught at Sterling High School and was the head guidance counselor at Greenville High before she retired. She has held numerous leadership positions and received high honors from various organizations through the years.

In 1976, she was named an Outstanding Leader in American Education. She was the American Association of University Women's Honoree of the Year in 1989 and received the Greenville Chapter NAACP Education Award in 1992.

In 1993, Norris received the Martin Luther King Award from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and the Vernon Jordan Jr. Education Award from the Greenville Urban League.

Then in 1994, Norris was awarded the Order of the Jessamine, and in 1995 the Greenville Urban League named its annual Service Award after her.

Norris prioritized better community services for Greenville, crime prevention programs and improved bus services when she first ran for County Council in 1996. She told The Greenville News then that she planned to prioritize people over political gestures.

"I always put politics on the back burner, but I've become very concerned about a number of issues in Greenville County — the elderly, the welfare of children, the abuse and neglect of children and services for people," Norris said in an interview with The News in November 1996. "I would like to serve my district because I've always been people-oriented, and I'd look out for the interest of the people."

Tamia Boyd is a Michigan native who covers breaking news in Greenville. Email her at tboyd@gannett.com, and follow her on Twitter @tamiamb.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Greenville County Council's Xanthene Norris behind reason of MLK Day

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