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Dispatches from South Carolina

Same As It Ever Was

by Kevin Alexander Gray

On July 2, 1776, the “anti-slavery clause” was removed from the Declaration of Independence at the insistence of Edward Rutledge, delegate from South Carolina. Rutledge threatened that South Carolina would fight for King George against her sister colonies. He asserted that he had “the ardent support of proslavery elements in North Carolina and Georgia as well as of certain northern merchants reluctant to condemn a shipping trade largely in their own bloodstained hands.” Fearful of postponing the American Revolution, opponents of slavery, who were in the clear majority, made a “compromise.” Thus, July 4, 1776, marks for African Americans not Independence Day but the moment when their ancestors’ enslavement became fixed by law as well as custom in the new nation.

If only anti-slavery foes had said “no compromise!” to South Carolina and rejected slavery and white privilege, the United States would have begun as a principled nation instead of a hypocritical one. Maybe then, today’s South Carolinians would not be at the point of violence about a flag and what to do with it.

Throughout American history, South Carolinians have led the fight to preserve and defend slavery, white supremacy, racial segregation, and race fear. South Carolina is the soul of the Confederacy. It is safe to say that South Carolina gave birth to Dixie, so much so that it is a matter of pride to many South Carolinians that their state was the first to secede from the Union and that Citadel cadets fired the first shot of the Civil War.

South Carolina’s singular role in United States history is as a conduit for the growth of slavery. Between 1700 and 1775, forty percent of all enslaved blacks came to America through the state. As Ellis Island in New York was the first stop for many Europeans willingly entering the New World, Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, was the first stop for many Africans who were brought here against their will. South Carolina had the highest percentage of slaveholders in the nation. In 1860 almost half (45.8 percent) of all white families in South Carolina held enslaved Africans.

The Confederate flag represents the glorification of that history. The flag represents slavery, racial oppression and a deep-seated belief in the very existence and rightness of the Confederacy. The flag symbolizes a privileged, landed class, white supremacy and patriarchy. Those who fought and died under the Confederate flag were willing to die for the expansion of slavery. This, not some vision of mint juleps and ladies in ringlets and lace, is the “heritage” that modern Confederates defend when they champion this flag. For most Americans, let alone most African Americans, the men who died under the Confederate battle flag were not heroes; they were traitors to the fundamental notion of human freedom.

For the past 32 years, the Confederate flag has flown atop South Carolina’s Statehouse dome. Now there is finally a movement to move the flag to the grounds around the Statehouse. Many in the white community believe this is a compromise blacks ought to jump on. Some have even offered that the flag be cast in bronze as possible compromise. A few white state legislators promise violence if the flag is not honored “appropriately” and as part of the “compromise,” black legislators must agree to leave all Confederate monuments, building, school, street names and the like in place.

In spite of such threats, the local, national and international community must repudiate this compromise. It is unacceptable to have the Confederate flag flying on public property. The flag is a racist, ignoble symbol and location does not change its meaning. The flag as government-imposed speech or symbolism is a slap in the face to all Americans who believe in equality. The NAACP’s demand is that the flag be removed from the dome and relegated to a museum. So, if the South Carolina legislature decides to cast the flag in bronze, the group will have accomplished its mission. That does not mean that the remaining monuments to racism ought to be left alone. All monuments that glorify slavery ought to crumble, and it is outrageous and not just symbolic that the most reactionary legislators are insisting that all other symbols of white supremacy and enslavement must stand if they give up this one.

The National Association for the Advancement for Colored People remains the spearhead of the economic boycott against South Carolina. Although the boycott sometimes lacks coherence, the group loses credibility amongst its core supporters by accepting any deal that leaves the flag flying. The boycott generally centers on tourism but, at present, it is difficult to measure the effect on white-owned businesses or activities such as concerts or sports events. Some in the movie industry such as Will Smith and Mel Gibson ignored the call to avoid the state while tennis pros Serena and Venus Williams refused to play at the all-but-segregated Hilton Head. The Neville Brothers appeared in the state while singer Gerald Levert says he won’t perform until the flag comes down.

A few months ago, the New York Knicks moved their training camp from Charleston. Players said they “didn’t feel welcome” with the flag flying. If the NAACP expands the boycott, it should include discouraging athletes, black and white, from playing major college sports in the state. The NCAA has indicated that it is willing to go along.

The boycott has had an immediately adverse affect on blacks. Many black families come into the state for reunions. Hotel owners whose client base is predominately black feel the immediate pain of the tourist boycott. If the boycott dramatically affects convention business, that hurts black workers disproportionately. In spite of this economic reality, moving the flag to the front door of the Statehouse ends nothing–would the civil war have ended if slavery had been moved to some more obscure corner of the nation?–and most black people in South Carolina are willing to sacrifice a bit longer. They see the flag as symbolic of the economic disparities and regressive racial attitudes that have persist in the state to this day.

The South Carolina business community, black and white, wants the flag down because the boycott and accompanying negative publicity is costing them money. Yet, many white businessmen express an inbred sympathy for flag supporters. Many in the chamber of commerce crowd think that moving the flag to the state’s Main Street will change the image of the state. They are counting on the rest of the world seeing it their way. They are just as out of touch with how South Carolina appears to the rest of the world as their predecessors who put the flag up as a symbol of resistance to civil rights for African Americans in 1968.

Many white legislators have openly expressed their longing for, denial of or amnesia about South Carolina’s racist history. Some have mused out loud about how good it was when all black football teams played the all-white teams. Almost all ignore past and present Ku Klux Klan activism and violence in the state. One calls the NAACP, the ‘national association of retarded people.” Others unashamedly proclaim that black slavery “is good.” Confederacy defenders and those nostalgic for state-sponsored segregation, present to the world the same troubling mindset as Austria’s Nazi SS defenders. The international community should respond to South Carolina as it did to Joerg Haider’s Freedom Movement and his Freedom Party-led government.

The South Carolina statehouse is surrounded by Confederate monuments. Not only that. There are Confederate monuments at every county courthouse and town square in the state. The names of white, male southern patriarchs are everywhere. Towering high in Charleston is a statute of John Caldwell Calhoun who promoted the ideology of white supremacy and states’ rights. General Wade Hampton who promoted and defended secession and the Confederacy sits on a horse on the capital grounds. Benjamin Ryan Tillman, a virulent white supremacist, constitutionally (and otherwise) who reinstituted white rule after Reconstruction, faces the Confederate soldier statue that guards the statehouse.

“Pitchfork” Ben drove blacks out of the state at gunpoint. He and his Sweetwater Sabre Club members wore white shirts stained in red to represent the blood of black men. Tillman’s heir, Senator James Strom Thurmond, rose to prominence in 1948 with the States Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats. Thurmond ran as that party’s presidential candidate; his party stood for segregation and against race mixing. Throughout his congressional, career Thurmond has opposed every major civil rights initiative. On the statehouse grounds, Thurmond’s statute faces the Confederate Women’s monument.

And long before Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” conducted human experiments on Jews at Birkenau and Auschwitz; long before the Tuskeegee experiment that left 399 black men untreated for syphilis from 1932 to 1972, South Carolina had James Marion Sims. Sims, the “father of gynecology,” established America’s first women’s hospital — the Women’s Hospital of the State of New York. He is also credited with founding the Cancer Hospital now known as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Yet before Sims treated the white and wealthy, he experimented on enslaved black women. Sims performed more than forty experimental operations on an enslaved woman named Anarcha for a prolapsed uterus without anesthesia or antiseptic. Sims’ memorial is tucked in a corner of the statehouse grounds next to the Robert E. Lee Memorial Highway plaque.

All these men hold a place of honor in the hearts and minds of many white South Carolinians. If they need to prove that they have not abandoned their racist heritage, there will remain plenty of evidence after the Confederate flag comes down. And ensuring that those relics of racism and white supremacy will remain in place for another generation is far too high a price to pay in order to achieve the minor feat of allowing the flag to further defile the statehouse grounds.

While the Statehouse lawn is crowded with statutes of white men the memory of the rebellious black haunts modern Confederates. The Citadel, the state-run military academy in Charleston that was recently forced to accept women, was built in 1825 after the Denmark Vesey insurrection of 1822. Construction of the Citadel arsenal was begun in order to protect whites from “an enemy in the bosom of the state.”

In 1999, a majority-white committee was given the task of coming up with a memorial for the Statehouse grounds that would recognize the legacy of slavery. Vesey’s name was suggested to the committee. The Vesey conspiracy was one of the most elaborate black uprisings on record. It involved thousands of blacks in and around Charleston. In the end Vesey, his five aides and thirty-seven blacks were hanged for trying to set themselves and their brethren free. Vesey didn’t just shout “give me liberty or give me death,” he acted on that idea, so fundamental to American concepts of liberty and values. Nevertheless, the committee refused to recommend a statute of Vesey because “he advocated killing whites.” But the committee did not suggest taking down the statues of Tillman and Hampton, who advocated killing blacks.

Many white southerners refuse to believe or accept the fact that his or her ancestors fought the wrong fight. You hear the same nonsense over and over: They “fought bravely,” “defended the land,” their cause was “noble”-even that they fought because they were called and “it was their duty to fight” Illusions aside, the war was about “keeping the niggers in place!” Poor whites fought and died in a “rich man’s war” because they wanted to remain “better than the niggers.” And today, if the flag remains on the dome or even if it is placed on the grounds, the underlying sentiment that welcomes its continued presence will be “keeping the niggers from getting what they want!”

For those with an unbiased and honest view of history, that flag will always represent racial oppression, first and foremost. Flag opponents are not asking anyone to forget history or to give up their flag. Just the opposite: We must never forget! Those who put one of the many Confederate flags on their cars or fly them in their yards at least do us the favor of letting us know what they stand for. Still, at some point, there must be a repudiation of the symbols and icons that glorify the immorality of the past.

People have to get beyond that point if we expect them to recognize the debt owed African Americans for the stolen lives and labor of their ancestors. And that is the least we ought to expect.

Gray is a writer and activist who resides in Columbia, South Carolina.