"You cannot lift the state economically without raising the education level of people." James F. Byrnes
In June 1950, Byrnes won the Democratic primary for Governor of South Carolina. He had three opponents but won almost 80 percent of the votes. Byrnes had no opponent in the general election and was inaugurated on January 16, 1951.
Byrnes' main interest as Governor was improving public education in the state. One of his first moves was to propose a three percent sales tax, the revenues of which would go strictly into building better school facilities for both blacks and whites.
At the time Byrnes was Governor, South Carolina had laws providing for the segregation of blacks and whites in public schools. Seventeen other states had similar laws. Byrnes felt that such laws could be fair only if the state provided blacks and whites with equal facilities. He was particularly concerned with the inadequacy of black school facilities, and, during his four years as Governor he allotted two thirds of the revenues from the sales tax and bond sales to the improvement of black schools.
When Byrnes became Governor, South Carolina had 1,200 school districts. By the end of his term, this number had shrunk to 102. The consolidation of school districts had both good and bad effects. On the one hand, it forced the closing of many inadequate facilities and allowed vast improvements for those schools that remained open. On the other hand, the closing of many rural schools meant the loss of community centers of activity in these areas and introduced the problem of transporting students further distances than was previously necessary.
Byrnes was also dedicated to the improvement of the state's colleges and universities. When, for example, in 1953 the state had a funding surplus, Byrnes advised that those funds be allotted to institutions of higher education. The General Assembly agreed to this proposal.
Among Byrnes' other interests and accomplishments as Governor were: improvements to the state hospital for the mentally ill, the establishment of a school for mentally-handicapped black children and attracting new industries to the state.
Byrnes' term as Governor ended on January 18, 1955, after which he retired from public life. It is fitting that both the first and last public offices Byrnes held were in the service of his beloved state of South Carolina: as Solicitor (prosecuting attorney) from 1908 to 1910 and as Governor from 1951 to 1955, respectively.