Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Flag’s relocation disappointed many

Confederate banner is off the dome but still a visible symbol
By WAYNE WASHINGTON – wwashington@thestate.com

The Confederate flag will be a lot closer to those who gather at the State House today for the 10th annual King Day at the Dome march and rally than it was for the first march.

No longer is the flag atop the State House dome, where in 1962 it was raised as a gesture of defiance to those who would contemplate desegregation and racial equality.

Now, the flag flaps on a 30-foot pole near a Confederate monument on the State House grounds. It is more visible, and, for many South Carolinians, it still stands for the things it always stood for – white supremacy and slavery, or Southern heritage and pride.

The flag’s current position is due in no small part to the more than 50,000 people who rallied on King Day a decade ago.

They commanded national and international attention. Their presence prodded reluctant lawmakers and the governor of South Carolina to do something, anything, to move ugly images of the state from the top of national newscasts.

"It was clear that it was not going away," former Gov. Jim Hodges said of the issue during a telephone interview last week. "It continued to be a front-burner issue. The rally reinforced that."

The sheer size of the turnout made a point, too.

"The rally reinforced the idea that a broad cross-section of South Carolinians wanted something done about it," said Hodges, a Democrat. "That was something missing before, the public aspect."

Hodges was governor, in part, because of the power of the flag.

His predecessor, Republican David Beasley, had angered some of his supporters by signaling a willingness to consider moving the flag from the State House dome. He then lost a close re-election battle to Hodges.

The success of the 2000 King Day rally opened new fronts in an age-old civil rights struggle. The rally showed the muscle of the NAACP, which played a major role in organizing the event. But its fallout eventually distanced that group from some rally supporters who reluctantly oppose the NAACP’s boycott of the state because the Confederate flag continues to fly on State House grounds.

"At a point, when a majority of people don’t like where you’re going, it seems to make sense to stop and reassess," said Cynthia Hardy, a radio talk show host who helped organize the 2000 rally. "We do have to assess the methods we use to achieve our goals."

SCHISM FOLLOWED

State legislators who used the cudgel of the rally to hammer out the compromise that brought the flag down felt stung when NAACP officials not only rejected the deal, but also lashed out at them.

"The NAACP’s resolution said take it down and put it in a place of historical context," said former state Sen. Kay Patterson, a Richland County Democrat who spent decades trying to persuade his colleagues to remove the flag from the dome and from the chambers and lobby of the State House.

"There was no talk about not putting it near the Confederate memorial," said Patterson. "Hell, you couldn’t get a place with more historical context."

Patterson, like other legislators who wanted the flag down, pressed for the flag to be put in a museum or in some other less public place.

The King Day rally had generated momentum for that course.

"There was no will to do anything until that rally," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, a Charleston minister and a vice president of the NAACP at that time. "I hear some people say, ‘We would have done something about it.’

"Yeah, right. Just like you were going to do something about segregation."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley attempted to add to the momentum in April, when he led a 112-mile walk from his city to Columbia to press for the lowering of the flag.

"I felt it was important that a white political leader lead this march," he said. "This was being portrayed as black versus white in our state. I knew that was a misrepresentation."

But the flag still had important political backers, principally Republicans led by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, of Charleston.

Moving the flag from the dome and off the State House grounds was a non-starter, rally or no rally, legislators said.

"We didn’t have the numbers to do what they want, bury the flag," state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said of those who wanted the flag moved to a museum.

Hodges had tried for a different compromise – bringing the flag down and placing it near a statue of Confederate Lt. Gov. and S.C. Gov. Wade Hampton on the less visible south side of the State House.

The NAACP opposed that move.

"The flying of the Confederate flag sends the wrong message," Lonnie Randolph, state president of the NAACP, said in a recent interview. "This was to promote slavery. Us flying the flag on State House grounds says we want to bring those days back. Those days ain’t coming back."

Hardy said she also was disappointed the deal to lower the flag did not put in a museum or a less visible location.

"It was a disappointing move," she said of the deal. "It felt empty and still does. (Legislators) said that’s the best they could do.

"I was disappointed with the best they could do."

Hardy said friends from other states don’t understand why the symbol still holds so much sway.

"My friends from around the country think we’re from a mean state, that we don’t respect the rights of other people," she said. "They think South Carolina is (an) oppressive place and that the oppressors don’t mind waving the symbols of oppression."

‘IT’S STILL IMPORTANT’

Despite the disappointment of not being able to get the flag off the State House grounds entirely, those who participated in the rally said it was still a watershed moment, one that should give today’s marchers confidence that enough voices, speaking together, can be heard.

"In the years since the first rally, we have not had as many people," said Cynthia Hardy’s husband, Jim Hardy IV. "But it’s still a galvanizing point where people can come together and let their voice be heard.

"I think it’s still important."

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