Letter From South Carolina

Letter From South Carolina

Shortly after Strom Thurmond died, the flags at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia were lowered to half-staff. Every flag except one, that is.


Shortly after Strom Thurmond died, the flags at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia were lowered to half-staff. Every flag except one, that is. There on the northern grounds below the Capitol steps, facing Main Street, the Confederate flag waved high. On that late-June evening, the flag served as a visible, and shameful, reminder: Racial politics in the South would long outlive their most resilient practitioner.

Thurmond’s death marked the end of an era, in that he was one of the South’s last living political links to the days of colored water fountains and segregated lunch counters. But even as that era is passing into history, history itself is becoming a battleground, demonstrating once again the truth of William Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On one side is the version of history promoted by conservative whites, who venerate the brave Confederate soldiers and their gallant generals. On the other side are blacks and the beleaguered, shrinking ranks of liberal whites, who prefer to speak about slavery as the horror it was. Now, a pair of major museum projects–one an unvarnished memorial to the realities of slavery, the other a celebration of the Confederacy–are about to make permanent the segregation of the region’s history. Both will be located in or near Charleston, the heart of the antebellum South, where the Civil War started.

The first project, a museum of African-American history, is being spearheaded by Charleston’s popular long-term Democratic mayor, Joe Riley, a white progressive who has built his career on racial reconciliation. The second project, a museum for the Hunley, a Confederate submarine recovered off Charleston’s coast, is championed by Confederacy-obsessed Republican State Senator Glenn McConnell, playing to the same impulses that fuel the pro-flag movement.

In the coming years, Riley and McConnell likely will be competing for limited public funds. But more important, they also will be competing to define how the South views its history–and by extension, how the rest of the country views the South. “This is always how it’s been down here, unfortunately,” said Democratic State Senator Darrell Jackson, an African-American whose slave ancestors were freed in the Civil War. “In this state there are two histories of South Carolina: one for the descendants of white slave- owners, the other for the descendants of slaves.”

These competing histories spill over into national politics. The “vital South”–the eleven states of the old Confederacy–is the nation’s most populous region, home to 84 million people according to the 2000 census. Courting African-American voters ahead of South Carolina’s February 3 primary, the first in the South, most of the Democratic presidential candidates have already declared their opposition to the Confederate flag’s presence on the Statehouse grounds. For Republicans, the conservative white vote is more important, which is why, during his 2000 primary run, George W. Bush made a controversial appearance at Bob Jones University.

“In much of the Deep South you’re seeing increasing separation between the races–in politics for sure, but also in residential patterns and schools,” said Dan Carter, an award-winning historian at the University of South Carolina. Carter believes the two museum projects are symbols of this resegregation. “There will be two very different visions of the past, existing parallel.”

Mayor Riley’s project, the proposed $40 million International Museum of African-American History, to be completed by 2007, promises to provide an honest look at the history of slavery in Charleston, where nearly half of all slaves brought to the United States first landed. Riley, 60, recalled that growing up in Charleston, he was uncomfortable with the Jim Crow norms. “I remember once as a young child, we were in a restaurant,” he said. “A slender, dignified-looking African-American waiter asked me a question–I don’t remember what. I answered ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir.'” When the waiter was out of earshot, Riley said, his father scolded him. “He told me, ‘You don’t say sir to a'”–Riley paused–“an African-American.”

A Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Riley admired African-American athletes like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Joe Black. He also idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, who, he said, “exposed white Southerners of goodwill to their conscience.” When he joined the state legislature in 1968, Riley helped dismantle the Jim Crow system under which he had been raised. And six years later, at the urging of African-American leaders and prominent white businessmen, he ran for mayor promising to promote racial harmony.

Now, Riley hopes the African-American history museum will help fulfill that promise. But that doesn’t mean avoiding harsh truths, according to Representative James Clyburn, chairman of the museum’s steering committee and the first and only African-American to represent South Carolina in Congress since Reconstruction. “The museum will accurately depict the history of Africans leaving their native lands, going through the Middle Passage and living as slaves,” Clyburn said.

Meanwhile, Clyburn’s friend, State Senator Jackson, has misgivings about the motives behind Charleston’s other major museum project, showcasing the Hunley. “These guys are always talking about ‘showing courage against the enemy,'” he said. “Well, that enemy was the United States of America, which set my ancestors free.”

Still, the Hunley, which was recovered off Charleston in 2000, has some historical significance: In 1864 it became the world’s first submarine to sink an enemy ship (it sank, for reasons unknown, on its way back to port). Currently, the rusty vessel is stored in a conservation center in North Charleston.

McConnell, the champion of the Hunley Museum and South Carolina’s most powerful state senator, runs a Confederate memorabilia store just a few exits down Interstate 26 from the Hunley. On a recent day he wore a tie decorated with the state flag–in Confederate red, not blue–and a wristwatch with a Confederate flag insignia. His cell phone, in a Confederate flag-emblazoned plastic sheath, is programmed to play “Dixie.” McConnell’s store is stocked with hundreds of such items as well as portraits of Civil War generals and rolls of toilet paper bearing Sherman’s image.

McConnell, 55, said his passion for the Confederacy came late in life. “My grandfather was very anti-Sherman, but other than that, my parents didn’t drill it into me,” he said. He recalled that his interest was piqued during a legislative controversy in the 1980s, when state officials refused to allow the newly discovered remains of a Confederate soldier to lie in state at the Capitol. From then on, McConnell became increasingly interested. He participated in Civil War re-enactments and opened his Confederate memorabilia shop in 1989. But it wasn’t until 1995, when the Hunley was discovered off Charleston’s coast, that he found his true passion, and he now heads the nine-member state commission that oversees the Hunley project. The all-white Hunley Commission also includes five other Republican state legislators and Chris Sullivan, editor of Southern Partisan, a Confederate apologist magazine based in Columbia.

In its current location, the Hunley shares space with a concession area offering such items as Confederate T-shirts and bolls of cotton. The conservation center was packed during my two visits, but I never saw an African-American. If McConnell, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, gets his way, the Hunley museum will offer no apologies for slavery. “Racism existed in all quadrants of the United States during the War Between the States, and it’s only the practice of modern politics to heap the blame for racism on the South,” he said.

Riley and McConnell are formidable political forces, and both likely will see their projects to fruition. Riley said he will rely primarily on private financing to build the African-American history museum, which is one reason he recruited former President Bill Clinton to serve as honorary international advisory board chairman. Meanwhile, McConnell is counting on public funding for his estimated $40 million museum, which should be completed in a few years; taxpayers have already spent $8 million to raise and preserve the submarine. (The state has also committed to spending another $3.5 million to purchase a Civil War painting and artifact collection to be displayed alongside it.)

Nearly 140 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Civil War, according to Emory University political scientist Merle Black, “remains the most traumatic, most significant episode in Southern history.” And the battle over the war’s meaning–the “two histories” State Senator Jackson referred to–continues to dominate Southern politics. “We’re close to having a white Republican Party and a black Democratic Party,” said the University of South Carolina’s Carter. “Whites like Riley are the exception. There are entire counties in South Carolina where you could fire a cannon in every direction and you wouldn’t hit a white Democrat.”

A look at the 2000 presidential election bears Carter out. Though he won only 8 percent of the African-American vote in the South, George W. Bush was able to sweep the region by winning 67 percent of the white vote. Bush’s victory underscored an unsettling truth: In a region where African-Americans account for only 20 percent of the electorate, major elections are determined by white voters. “It’s a simple formula,” said Black. “To win elections in the South, Republicans have to win more than 60 percent of the white vote, while Democrats have to win more than 40 percent.”

The erosion of the solid Democratic South is a familiar story. In recent years, the Republican surge has been abetted by the rise of the white middle class and the conservative religious movement. Al Gore’s populist campaign did not resonate with these voters, Black said. “His father could have won on that campaign, maybe, back in 1950,” Black said. Instead, Southern white moderates and conservatives are more receptive to a message of lower taxes and “family values.”

They also respond to racial appeals. Bush’s Bob Jones visit recalled Ronald Reagan’s campaign trip to Philadelphia, Mississippi, two decades earlier. Both men demonstrated their conservative bona fides to white Southerners, Bush by speaking at a university that banned interracial dating, Reagan by visiting–at Mississippi Representative Trent Lott’s urging–a community where three civil rights workers were killed with the help of local police officers in 1964. And more recently, Jim Hodges and Roy Barnes, the respective former Democratic governors of South Carolina and Georgia, lost their 2002 re-election bids thanks, in part, to their efforts to tone down the official display of the Confederate flag.

For many Southerners–including myself–the official display of the Confederate flag is an embarrassment. Nevertheless, it forces Southerners into an increasingly rare public debate over their common, disputed history. None of the politicians or historians I spoke with thought the two future Charleston museums would prove as controversial. This is not surprising, since, to put it crudely, with the International Museum of African-American History and the Hunley Museum, blacks will have their history and whites will have theirs. And so, I’m afraid, the museums–in the guise of education, no less–will not only come to symbolize the South’s segregated past but also its segregated present and future.

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