As a native South Carolinian, I know full well my little pie-shaped state by the Atlantic Ocean has precious little to show for its 489 years of European influence. To be sure, we started out well enough and early to boot. Spaniard Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, founded the first European settlement in what would be the United States back in 1526. Called San Miguel de Gualdape and founded with 600 settlers, including African slaves, the little colony only lasted three months. I suppose football season ended. We were one of the original Thirteen Colonies, the First State under the Articles of Confederation, and the Eighth State to ratify the US Constitution. One could say we made a good beginning. Unfortunately, things began a steep decline from such august beginnings around 1860 and we’ve had trouble getting back on the rails ever since. We have no confirmed Presidential birthplaces within our borders, and no Presidential campaigns ever hinge on our bright red state. None of the Big Four professional sports has a team which calls our state home. No national parks beckon tourists even if the Grand Strand does.
Indeed, few in this country notice us at all and if they do it is for some reason of negativity. We hover around 49th in educational success (thank you, Mississippi). We have staggering poverty in our Appalachian regions AND in our Lowcountry. We started the Civil War after all. Anytime we get press, it usually refers to the little pizza-pie shaped Southern rebel. Every now and then, however, my state grabs the national spotlight by the throat and shines it on some speck of accomplishment worthy of pride even if, in that moment of pride, sorrow usually dwells.
Recently, our nation has endured throes of rioting and rhetoric not seen since the Rodney King Verdict in the 90’s. Places like Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland have erupted in violence towards all following violence towards others — specifically blacks. In that same time period, my state has experienced two of the worst incidents of racial violence the country has produced in many years. Recently, a white police officer in Charleston, SC shot an unarmed black man seven times in the back as the man fled arrest. Just nine days ago, a young white boy walked into a Charleston, SC church of mostly black worshipers and, after spending an hour bathed in their love, rose from his pew and slaughtered nine congregants with a concealed handgun.
Considering the response to similar incidents across the nation, people in other states held their breath wondering how the towns and cities of South Carolina would burn with rioting and looting. Imagine their surprise when our response was justice instead of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric and unconditional love instead of spewed hatred. The dread gods of chaos did not descend upon my state. Al and Jesse didn’t rush here to make speeches. Instead, we held hands and wept together at the tragedy our people had endured, but we did not add wanton destruction to the already terrible loss. Our state stood tall as others looked on, waiting for flames, they found only flowers.
Now some might take my words in praise of my state to mean I feel South Carolina is above the fray other states find themselves in. Some may take me for a polemicist point out the progress this one time bastion of the Confederate States of America has made towards equality. Some may even think I’m daring to say South Carolina has overcome racism. So do I believe my beloved Palmetto State has truly turned the corner and we are beyond the pale in terms of racism? Have we really become the fertile ground to realize Dr. King’s mountaintop dream? In short, can we say with pride South Carolina is not a racist state?
OH HELL NO! Are y’all crazy? South Carolina is one of the most racist places in the USA. Come on, now, people.
Look, Charleston, where all this happened, was one of the largest slave entry points in the colonies and later the country. “The Old Slave Market” is still a huge draw for the city’s multitude of tourists even if today ornamental tchotchkes instead of human chattel are the featured items. We may not have had as many huge plantations as Georgia or Virginia, but we had our share and African slaves bent their backs under King Cotton’s lash for 250 years. Oh, we started the Civil War that killed more Americans than any other conflict we’ve ever entered. Once the war was over, we replaced King Cotton with Jim Crow to “keep ‘them’ in their ‘place.'” Just because we didn’t have the Scotsboro Boys or Emmitt Till doesn’t mean we didn’t have lynchings a-plenty. The white robes Klansmen have always found a haven in the Palmetto State.
Ever hear of the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS? You know, the one that was supposed to strike down segregated schools? It passed in 1954. We didn’t have the Little Rock Nine and our governor didn’t sit in the schoolhouse door to bar “colored” from entering, but anyone want to guess when our little state finally complied and FULLY integrated all public schools? 1971, the year I was born and a full seventeen years after the Brown decision. Our longest serving US Senator from SC — the Honorable (oookayy) Strom Thurmond — ran for President on a platform of continuing and strengthening segregation. When the Civil Rights Movement reached full swing and came to South Carolina, the state legislature responded by requiring the Confederate Battle Flag to fly from the TOP of the Statehouse dome. Oh, and the piece de resistance, we sent a man to the United States House of Representatives who interrupted this country’s first black President during an INTERNATIONALLY TELEVISED SPEECH to call him a liar right in front of God, the international media, and a joint session of Congress. He was later re-elected to his House seat by a 96% margin.
It’s safe to say we’ve come a ways, but we’ve got miles to go before we sleep equally well.
So what AM I trying to say about my state? First of all, we don’t HIDE our racism here just like we don’t hide our crazy relatives. No, we wrap a shawl around it’s neck, sit it in a rocker on the front porch, and let it wave at the neighbors. We were an original slave state; we started a freaking WAR to keep our states’ rights . . . to OWN PEOPLE. What’s the point in denying it? Drive all over the lower part of the state and you’ll see dozens of posh, well landscaped private schools named after Confederate generals and all with a plaque out front saying “FOUNDED 1971.” If you can’t beat ’em, run from ’em. Interracial couples still get a lot of stares and glares, but we aren’t stringing them up and while that might not seem like much, at least it’s something. What I’m saying is, we are trying. Overcoming 500 years of precedent and prejudice won’t be accomplished overnight, but we are trying.
For example, if you are a cop and you shoot an unarmed man you were trying to arrest for non-payment of child support seven times IN THE BACK on VIDEO, we will not send the video to a lab and have it analyzed ad nauseum then convene a grand jury to figure out what should be done about you amidst much hand-wringing and moral agonizing. NO. Instead, we will fire you, take your badge and gun, charge you with first degree murder then THROW. YOUR. ASS. IN. JAIL! If some poor fool walks into a church and walks out later with an empty gun leaving behind nine dead worshipers, we aren’t calling “Reverend” Sharpton to come make a speech about how tragic the incident is while neighborhoods all across the state lose their minds and start burning police cars, smashing store windows, and looting everything in sight under the pretense of “being angry at the system.” Instead, we will pack out that church with people black, white, brown, red, pink, orange and green for every funeral. We will do what we always do for death in the South . . . mourn with those who mourn and send casseroles, pound cakes, and dry chicken to comfort the grieving.
That’s just the way we roll here in South Cackalacky. From poor white trash to Hilton Head / Cliffs of Glassy McMansions, we know how to act — black and white. We may not always do right, but we KNOW right from wrong because it’s the way our Mamas and Grandmamas — black and white — raised us to do. Family members get on TV and forgive the ignorant young man because it’s what Jesus said do and around here, Jesus and Mama are still more important than the media. So, no, we aren’t perfect and we’re still racist as Hell, but most of us WANT to do better. Just like every other state, we’re all in the same racist prison looking out the same racist bars. The difference is other states are looking at the mud and we are looking at the stars.
Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!