Industrialist and political kingmaker Roger Milliken was a man of great wealth, influence, and contradictions. Fiercely opposed to organized labor, in 1956 he fired 500 workers after they voted to unionize their Darlington, S.C., factory (he was later ordered to pay them a $5 million settlement). But in 1995, he kept 700 idle workers on his payroll for six months after their LaGrange, Ga., plant burned down.
Milliken was “the last of a breed of larger-than-life South Carolina business tycoons with a wealth in the billion-dollar range,” said the Columbia, S.C., State. Born in New York City, he “inherited a handful of textile manufacturing sites” upon his father’s death in 1947. Those holdings were the foundation of Milliken & Co., which he grew into one of the nation’s largest textile and chemical companies. Based in Spartanburg, S.C., the company has 9,000 employees working at 50 plants in seven countries. His fortune enabled him to give so much money to Republican candidates “that dismayed Democrats took to calling him ‘Daddy Warbucks.’” Beneficiaries of his largesse included Southern conservative stalwarts Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, as well as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
A champion of American manufacturing, Milliken “provided the financial and intellectual muscle that helped the Republican Party come to dominate politics in South Carolina, which had been a Democratic Party preserve since Reconstruction,” said The New York Times. He’s often credited with persuading Thurmond to switch to the Republican camp in 1964. Yet Milliken’s efforts to protect his company—and South Carolina’s textile industry overall—from foreign competition put him at odds with many free-market Republicans. In the late 1960s, Milliken pushed Wofford College, in Spartanburg, to integrate racially, promising to finance the school “if its acceptance of black students drove other financial backers away.” He was also one of the first American industrialists to champion energy conservation and efficiency, investing in solar and wind-power projects despite his professed disbelief in man-made global warming.
An ardent conservationist, Milliken founded the Noble Tree Foundation to encourage tree-planting in the Spartanburg area. With his support, the Wofford campus was named a National Arboretum in 2002.