(Editors’ Note: The following is the complete text of Kevin Alexander Gray’s July 4th 2015 speech at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia and in Charleston in the days following the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church murders. JSC/JF)
My thanks to Brett Bursey and the South Carolina Progressive Network for asking me to speak.
If I say something you agree with, give Brett and the Progressive Network the credit.
If I say something you disagree with, it’s all on me.
I’m gonna try to “keep it one hundred.”
First of all, it’s not just about that (rebel) flag.
It’s about the underpinning or racism, white supremacy and white privilege in this country.
The foundation of freedom is that no race of people is superior to another.
There is no master race, no enslaved race, no superior race, no inferior or lesser race, no exceptional nation, no chosen people or people who are genetically predisposed to rule, commit crimes, be poor, be rich, have less or more intelligence or a lesser or greater work ethic.
The foundation of the freedom struggle is to oppose judging, punishing or abusing people because of their skin color, or any other genetic or biological factor that they had little or no say in.
It’s being against killing people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality simply because one has more power over those scorned as different.
These are basic requirements if one is trying to live a life respectful of human rights.
Beyond the long hard slog or the urgency of the moment – President Barack Obama called it the “fierce urgency of now,” historically, the Abolitionists, Civil-Rights and Peace movements – today we call it the Progressive movement – have broadly focused their energies on establishing, protecting and expanding due process, equal protection or treatment and equal opportunity under law along with economic rights and redress for rights denied Africans enslaved as chattel property and African Americans discriminated against by law and custom be it through Jim Crow, the war on drugs or any other area of life that creates structural racial inequality and misery.
Support of enslavement and discrimination as a property rights or states’ rights issue is immoral, lunacy, ignorance and a conscious denial of history.
A progressive movement fights for all those, here and abroad, that routinely see their human and equal citizenship rights denied, challenged or disregarded in one way or another.
There is no such thing as second-class citizens or illegal humans – here and abroad. There’s only equality under the law.
A progressive movement works to bridge the gap between race and class.
Respecting and supporting civil rights for all is basic to respecting human rights and freedom.
Those who don’t support due process, equal protection, equal treatment, equal opportunity and economic rights under law for gays, immigrants, women, and others that have been locked out are wrong.
Those that think it’s disrespectful to blacks to compare the gay movement to the civil rights’ struggle are wrong.
I normally don’t celebrate the 4th of July.
On July 2, 1776, the “anti-slavery clause” was taken out the Declaration of Independence at the insistence of Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina. A “compromise” was reached on the 3rd and the Declaration was signed on the 4th. Thus, July 4, 1776, marks for African Americans not Independence Day but the moment when their ancestors’ enslavement became fixed by law and custom in the new nation.
The other delegate to the Declaration’s signing was Edward’s brother John, also an enslaver. Two blocks from the Statehouse is the Rutledge Building, headquarters for the State Department of Education – it’s named after John.
That’s how deep the people who built their wealth on African enslavement are embedded in our daily lives. They’re at the very foundation of the education of our children, and everyone that came before and everyone that will come after.
My first public school experience was in Fairforest, South Carolina at the consolidated segregated high school – which means the school had grades 1-12. The name of the school – Abraham Lincoln High School.
It’s gone now.
A lot of schools in the south that once carried Lincoln’s name, purposely, no longer exist.
Neither do schools once named after Booker T. Washington. Or George Washington Carver.
Yet Robert E. Lee name endures. Not just on school buildings and statues, but also on Highway 1 throughout the South.
Politicians often proclaim America as being the land of immigrants.
It’s not just that.
America is the land of descendants of immigrants, the kidnapped, refugees and the conquered.
New Mexico is New Mexico for a reason.
Texans shout “Remember the Alamo!” but they can’t seem to remember what African enslavement had to do with that fight.
I use ‘kidnapped enslaved African’ as opposed to slave as much as I can. To call someone or a people – a slave or slaves – is to dehumanize them and to strip them of their identity.
I cringe whenever I hear someone say, “African-American slaves.” Africans were not Americans until after the 13th Amendment. Before then they were enslaved Africans.
Every year around this time I re-read Frederick Douglas’ speech – ‘What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?’
He [I] answers:
“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
‘What does Independence Day mean to the descendants of enslaved Africans?’
Doubtless, progress has been made. We have a black president and thousands of black elected officials.
Yet Douglas’ speech still rings true.
The wealth gap, income inequality and the gap between the haves and have-nots is not an abstraction for black Americans.
I’m unmoved about Emancipation Day.
Why celebrate the ancestors being freed from a condition that they should never have been in? Though let me say, ‘Watch Night’ churches services where people get together and wait for the “dawn of freedom” is a good time to do teach-ins about our history.
I eat black-eyed peas on New Years Day.
Even why we eat black-eyed peas on New Years is even rooted in slavery. Black-eyed peas, first domesticated in Africa, made their way to North America though slave ships. Many planters used them as livestock feed.
Then there’s Juneteenth – celebrating getting news of freedom six months late.
But given we are at a point that the rebel flag in front of us is coming down if we keep up the pressure, the flag is one of the reasons I’m here today.
More importantly, the 9 martyrs of Mother Emanuel AME Church brought me out today.
Clementa Pinckney was legit. The fact that Dylann Roof got as close to him as he did is a testament to who Clementa was as a person.
I’ve been inside Emanuel church more times that I can remember. Most of the time it was about organizing the community on some political battle.
We can’t say the names of those martyred in Charleston enough.
Not everyone who is killed is a martyr. But these souls are. Their lives meant something. Their deaths mean something.
Martyrs move us forward.
Their names must ring through history like the other souls who occupy the consciousness of our collective struggle against bigotry.
Last week when I spoke here at the Statehouse I asked those in attendance to help me in a call and response.
I asked my fellow citizens to respond: ‘May (her or his) soul rest in peace, power, freedom and love’ after I called out the name of one of the Mother Emanuel martyrs.
I won’t do that today. But I still want to say their names aloud so that we begin to burn them in our minds and hearts and help set their place in our collective DNA:
For X, Y and millennial generations, the Emanuel 9 is its tragic offering in the struggle against racism.
The Emanuel 9’s names belong besides Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson and Carol Denise McNair, the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963.
22 others were injured in the explosion when the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the front steps of the church.
The Klan maimed and killed defending white power.
The Emanuel 9 must be remembered whenever we think of patriots James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department killed the three civil rights workers in Mississippi on a June night in 1964.
They killed defending white power.
In March of this year many Americans made the pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the 1965 crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Millions watched the movie Selma for a Hollywood history lesson.
On the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” we celebrated winning the fight against not having to take a literacy test to register to vote or having to know the number of bubbles in a bar of soap to get a voter registration card, or having to pay a poll tax to vote or just outright being denied entry into the registrar’s office backed up by billy clubs, water hoses, dogs, tear gas, nooses, bullets and badges.
South Carolina, with the aid of Nikki Haley and the GOP, is one of those states that has erected voter ID laws to make voting more difficult for the elderly, people of color and the poor.
Today, the very law – The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the sections that protected the right to vote has been gutted by the Supreme Court.
Yet on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” we also reflected on the lives lost in the struggle for voting rights.
Jimmie Lee Jackson.
The Emanuel 9 is tied to the Selma martyrs – murdered by men defending white power.
Three years later in 1968, in this state, at South Carolina State College, more martyrs.
They became victims of white supremacy at the hands of South Carolina Highway patrolmen. 28 others were injured.
The troopers claimed to be defending law and order.
One person was wrongfully convicted of inciting a riot and sent to jail over what happened in Orangeburg. Cleve Sellers, father of former State Representative Bakari Sellers.
Cleve was ultimately pardoned.
I’ve always thought it was the state that needed the pardon.
I attended the homegoing service for Clementa Pinckney. Memorably, President Obama sang “Amazing Grace”, written by slave ship captain John Newton, in a ceremony for a preacher who stood in the pulpit of the church founded by Denmark Vesey.
And Al Sharpton – who seemed to stand throughout the service to make sure his presence was known to all. Both he and Jesse Jackson seated on the very last row of the VIP section.
As Obama grasped the pulpit with both hands and shook his shoulders just a bit, as he uttered the words “Amazing Grace”, I wondered if he was trying to conjure up his inner Southern black man or trying to calculate whether or not his singing would make him look unpresidential. As is the custom, the “congregation” let him carry the first verse on his own.
Coincidentally, we remember and commemorate his hanging on July 2nd, 1822, 193 years ago for plotting an insurrection of enslaved Africans.
What a coincidence. South Carolina hung Vesey on the same date that they refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. July 2nd.
And the Confederate flag removed from the Statehouse dome to the grounds on July 2nd 15 years ago.
The Emmanuel 9 are bound to Vesey. We are all bound to Vesey.
That’s the “arc of the moral universe” in effect.
Tragedies take place on the arc.
Martyrs move us forward along the arc.
That’s our history.
What a twisted history.
We sing the song of the slave ship captain.
The enslaved seized the song of their kidnappers as their own.
The descendants of those held captive in the cargo holds of misery ships sing the song of their ancestors’ tormentors as their own.
What a twisted relationship.
A longing to be accepted by the enslavers.
A longing to be forgiven by the enslaved.
The enslaved also sung “… For the wicked carried us away to captivity. Required from us sad songs …”
How sickening – Condoleezza Rice playing “Amazing Grace” on the piano to the images of soldiers on the battlefield and those who were killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Is it “Amazing Grace” for the 22 veterans a day, 8000 a year, that kill themselves over the horrors she, George Bush or their accomplices helped them experience? Or the 50,000 or more homeless vets? Or the 700,000 vets in jails and prisons?
Is “thank you for your service” and “Amazing Grace” all they get from her? From this country?
We didn’t hold George Bush or his accomplices accountable for all the murders that they had soldiers commit in our names, under the “Stars and Stripes.”
You see, it’s not just about the rebel flag. It’s about the fact that white supremacy and white privilege rest on conquest and killing.
America can’t seem to find it’s way out of the violence business.
This country spent $1.5 million per troop per tour in Iraq and Afghanistan yet can’t find money for free college education for all or equitable funding for school districts across our state.
America always has money for war and little else.
The poor are made villains even as they line up to play the lottery to subsidize the educational cost of mostly white, middle class students, many who still end up carrying a college loan debt years after they leave college, with or without a degree.
People talk about wanting to have an honest conversation about race and but it never happens.
We have different meanings for words or we don’t really understand their meanings or just pretend not to know.
White supremacy isn’t just about men in white hoods. It’s about laws and actions to advance, protect and reinforce white skin privilege and white, male patriarchy in perpetuity.
Ask someone if they’re racist and I’m sure they’ll say: ‘Oh no, I’m not racist.’
We live in a profoundly racist country but if you ask 10 people are they racist most, if not all will say no.
All of us are racist; but to change we have to be conscious of our racism and what racism is.
One is a bigot if they believe that the group that he or she thinks they belongs to is better than everyone else.
Racism is the power to control or even kill members of the group you think you’re better than with the sanction and power of government.
Racism is about a power.
It’s about the power that when one sees a young black kid going down the street, he’s immediately a thug and will get shot by the police quicker that an a white kid with an AR-15 strapped to his shoulder walking through a Walmart.
Racism shrouds the mind into believing that the person getting shot by police probably deserved it.
Racism shrouds the mind into believing that police – who routinely lie – are telling you the truth.
Black people don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
That’s the power of racial profiling and racial hate.
And it’s not just confined to young black men. It’s older men too. Women and girls are victimized as well.
The hate doesn’t discriminate. From 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, killed back in 2006 in Atlanta to seven-year-old Aiyana Jones killed in 2010 in Detroit to 17-year-old Trayvon Martin killed in 2012 in Sanford, Florida to 43-year-old Eric Garner in 2014 killed in New York – and the list grows everyday. Over 500 people killed by police this year alone.
The common thread is that the killers operate on the impulse that their victims don’t have any rights white supremacy is bound to respect.
It’s about the racism that allows politicians in this city – politicians in cities across the nation do the same thing – to build all the way down to the Vista and the river – it used to be called the “the bottom,” where mostly blacks and the poor once lived, in the shadow of CCI (Central Correctional Institution), to build all the way down to Columbia College and Five Points, all pretty much white areas, yet they can’t even put in a sidewalk or pave and repair a single street in the black community in the capital city.
White pioneers moving back to the cities.
The poor, working class people and blacks pushed out into newly segregated areas or crowded into existed blighted areas until development reaches there and pushes them out of those areas.
They pay disproportionate traffic fines and court cost. They’re fined for not cutting their grass or parking a car on the sidewalk or in the yard. Or working on cars in their yards, or any number of code violations.
They’re redlined. They pay high interest payday and title loans. They pay high insurance rates. Their schools are under funded.
First come more police. Then the developers move in. That’s structural racism. Gentrification is structural racism.
It’s more important that the mayor of the capitol city, Steve Benjamin, deals with the institutional racism of gentrification rather than grandstanding on the rebel flag.
The mayor is tight with the developers. Giving tax breaks for building high-rent apartments and housing for college students and the well healed at the expense of low-income and working people.
The parents of the students pay the high rents, while their kids’ educational cost is supplement by the poor lottery players. In the end the big winners are the developers and big landlords.
That’s a plantation system.
I spoke in downtown Charleston the weekend following the Mother Emanuel murders at the top of the steps of the Slave Market. Right below the eave of the building for the world and tourists to see is: The Daughters of the Confederacy in bold white letters.
Bakari Sellers spoke before me.
I don’t remember much of what he said to an unaware crowd.
All I could think about looking up at the younger Sellers on that portico was his serving on the National Council of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) siding with the oppressor over the oppressed.
Palestinian lives matters.
Even so, when it was my turn to speak, as I looked out at the majority white crowd I thought, this is good. After all, a number of whites, friends and strangers, commented to me after the tragedy that it made them “ashamed to be white.”
My response was, ‘you didn’t kill anyone’ followed by ‘what we need is less collective guilt and more collective responsibility.’
I was empathetic, but in the back of my mind I thought about how this society universalizes the single bad act of one black person to all of us. When an individual commits a crime the question always comes up; “what are black people gonna do about it?”
In the racist mind, blacks are predisposed to being criminals, thugs or “no angel[s]” as the FOX reporter Megan Kelly said of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton, the girl assaulted by McKinney, Texas police officer David Eric Casebolt in June of this year.
Imagine if a black man had gone into a white church killing nine white people? America would be fuming at black people.
Want a clear example of white skin privilege? It’s how police in McKinney dealt with Dajerria Becton, a teen-age girl in a bikini at a rowdy pool party versus how North Carolina police dealt with 21-year-old murder suspect Dylann Roof.
Becton had a 200 plus pound officer sitting on top of her. Knee in her back. Slapping cuffs on her for telling her friends to “call my mama.” Look at dash cam video of Roof’s arrest. Police holster their guns before they take him out the car. They stop by Burger King to get him a hamburger because he was hungry – which I have no problem with if you do that for everybody – though there’s food at the jail.
That’s skin privilege.
On the other side of the coin, white people have been extra-courteous in the days and weeks after the Charleston massacre. A friend of mine said he went to McDonalds the other morning with a coupon to get a cut of coffee and the coupon had expired. He said the white man behind him asked him what he needed and handed him a five dollar bill.
As I looked out at the majority white crowd in downtown Charleston I thought to myself, if the flag comes down, whites will make it happen.
Then it hit me. Whites can mobilize and hit the streets of downtown Charleston because that’s who now lives there. Given Charleston’s main business – slavery tourism – lots of blacks work downtown. And while there are plenty of black churches downtown, many of their members no longer live around the churches they attend on Wednesdays and Sundays. Gentrification has pushed them out.
Many call Roof a terrorist. I prefer to call him a murder.
Terrorist gives him the ideological validation he and his supporters want.
If one opposes the war on terrorism, supports the claim that the ‘war on terror’ is an excuse to bomb people of color across the globe – then the word and the deadly policies and practices it rains down on people are racist.
The moment must not make us blind to what will come.
If the ‘war on terror’ and who’s a terrorist, expands its scope and net domestically, it’s people of color that will pay the price.
The police already have no problem replacing “thug[s]” with terrorist[s].
South Carolina passed a lynching law years ago. Most people think it’s to protect blacks, but the majority of those charged with lynching – when two or more are involved in an altercation of some type – are young black men.
In the post 9-11 world, some of us, with little success, have pushed back against the Patriot Act, NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) and expanding the ‘war on terror.’
Failure aside, we must continue to fight for equal justice for all – not equal injustice for all.
Many want Roof charged with a hate crime.
Conviction on 9 counts of murder should be enough to keep him in jail the rest of his life.
Some, once against the death penalty, are quiet, hoping Roof faces the death penalty.
We must continue to oppose the death penalty for Roof or anyone else.
The politicians would like to impose the death penalty and get rid of Roof as quickly as possible to kill any wider discussion of white supremacy along with him.
The families that showed up at Roof’s bond hearing have the right spirit. They’re bigger than Roof. They’re bigger than the people clamoring for vengeance.
What soul deep things to say to the world:
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr., said,
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live and love. So hate won’t win…”
And Bethane Middleton Brown, the sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor:
“For me, I am a work in progress. And I acknowledge I am very angry. But one thing that she’s always joined in our family with is that she taught me that we are the families that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive…”
Forgiving is about not carrying hate and bitterness in your heart. It isn’t blanket absolution. It doesn’t mean that you’d be alright with Roof walking free.
We must be consistent in opposing the death penalty; we need to fight the impulse and practice of substituting revenge for justice. We have to be clear about that. We must set an example to our children that killing – be it the government or an individual, is wrong.
We got to also be clear that ending violence is not just from the bottom up but top down as well.
It’s about more than Governor Nikki Haley saying ‘well my kids were upset by what happened in Charleston.’
It’s more than about her kids; it’s about all of our kids and grandkids.
It’s about the people that die because they can’t get health insurance. They don’t go out as violently as the people in the basement of Emanuel Church, but they die and their deaths are just as significant.
Haley needs to be held accountable.
She and her party rejected providing health insurance to the “undeserving poor” – using the language of the plantation and racists to block helping people in the state.
That’s what the politics of this state have been about throughout the years.
Haley and her party rejected the expansion of Medicaid offered by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They turned their backs on $12 billion in federal dollars depriving over 160-190,000 working people, more whites than blacks, from getting health insurance.
It’s not just about that flag, it’s about at the end of the process of bringing it down, that we continue to fight structural racism.
Whenever death hits our family my mum is quick to say, “funerals are for the living” and “death brings out the worst or best in people.”
Clementa Pinckney’s homegoing was cloaked in ritual and paternalism. Women were given supporting roles in the service.
Many are calling President Obama’s eulogy at the service his best speech ever.
That depends on one’s consciousness – or unconsciousness.
Back in the 80s Reverend Jackson spoke about moral authority and his grandmother:
“When she told you to shut up, you shut up! Not because she could hurt you, though she could. You shut up because you knew she was right, and she loved you. Grandma had moral authority.”
A lot of people look at 21-year-old Roof, a person who had a black ‘friend’ or two, and ask; “Where did he learn to hate?” “Where did he learn to kill with no feelings?” “How could he murder 9 people?”
I was talking to an black Iraqi vet the other day and he was saying the problem was Roof did his deed without challenge. He said, “Nobody’s gonna come up on me with me not doing nothing!” It was to let me know that he carried a gun or kept one close by. I said to him, ‘and you did how many tours of duty in Iraq?’ Vet, “2.” ‘And how many Iraqis homes did you kick in the door and they couldn’t do nothing?’ No answer.
If you fly into the Columbia airport at any given time, there are young recruits reporting for basic training at Fort Jackson. Most are teenagers fresh out of high school.
They come to Columbia to learn to kill.
It’s not hard to learn to kill people. Especially those we don’t see as like us – or even human – subhuman.
It’s not hard to indoctrinate the young.
Roof is a human drone.
He’s like the bomb dropped from an F-16 into Gaza.
Or a suicide bomber.
Or a drone piloted by someone tucked away at Langley aimed at somebody or bodies branded as “terrorist[s]” in a secret White House meeting on Terror Tuesday.
If you kill people at funerals, weddings and barbeques without the benefit of due process, you have no moral authority.
If you depend on the assassin’s bullet without benefit of due process, you have no moral authority.
President Obama’s administration won’t even apologize to the people who lost family members in the “war on terror” as “collateral damage” when an apology is all they’ve asked for.
Moral authority. All lives matter.
So let me close with a few things to set the record straight.
It all comes back around to Denmark Vesey – fighting against the odds.
When removal of the flag from the Statehouse Dome was debated back in 2000, some suggested, including me, that a statue of Vesey be put on the Statehouse grounds.
Then Charleston Senator Glenn McConnell, Confederate reinactor, seller of Confederate memorabilia, promoter of all things Confederate – like the Confederate submarine Hunley – yet another Charleston slavery tourism attraction – and now President of the College of Charleston, along with other defenders of white power, rejected a Vesey monument saying he “advocated killing white people.”
To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War McConnell donned his Confederate general uniform at a mock plantation ball – complete with black minstrels. At the Modjeska Simkins House here in Columbia, hundreds of people participated in a 24-hour marathon reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
McConnell thinks there will be an effort to take on all the monuments and Confederate names on just about anything one can imagine. He and others like him say it will be “an erasing of history.”
Yet nobody’s talking about erasing a history we all need to remember.
The erasing and re-writing of history began after Reconstruction during “Pitchfork” Benjamin Tillman’s Redemption Period and with the rise of the Cult of the Lost Cause in the early 1900s. It continues today in southern school districts ordering up history books that teach children that “slavery was a side issue” in the “War of Northern Aggression.”
McConnell’s side worries, and rightfully so, that people, in particular young people, will take on removing monuments and renaming streets and such. Or they’ll leave a mark in paint. Maybe the words “RACIST” or “VICIOUS WHITE SUPREMACIST” in blood red paint on a statue or portrait.
Just about everyday here in Columbia, I ride down Wade Hampton Street, named after a former governor and Confederate general. There’s a statue of him on a horse on the other side of Statehouse grounds. If you drive down Hampton Street towards Lexington, the next county over, you cross the Jefferson Davis Bridge. One of the busiest streets in Columbia is Bull Street, named after a Confederate general famous for sounding the alarm on an enslaved African insurrection.
It’s endless. Gregg Street and Maxcy Gregg Park in Columbia, named after a Confederate general who served under Hampton.
Taylor Street, named after the plantation that provide the original land for the city.
Over in the corner on these grounds there’s a monument to J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology” who did all his experiments on enslaved African women. While growing up in Spartanburg I remember there was an all-black school that bore his name. A bronze and granite monument to Sims stands on the Central Park Perimeter Wall at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street across from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.
Then there’s John C. Calhoun. Roads, streets, buildings, a county, statues all bear his name.
You have to drive thru Calhoun County twice when you’re going to Charleston on I-26.
McConnell’s side worries about people erasing and renaming things.
The most difficult place to erase the slave owners’ mark are the surnames of the descendants of the enslaved.
Look up the Pinckney name, or Middleton, or Hammond, all black plantation owners. Not to ignore George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
While doing research on James Brown at the state archives years ago, the first thing I found out was that his people worked on the James C. Brown plantation in Barnwell County.
McConnell’s only half right as most black people will not be changing their surnames any time soon.
Yet just as we fought for decades to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse Dome and then the lawn, young people must pick up the fight and take on and take down monuments to white supremacy and oppression.
In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed attacks and desecration of Confederate monuments across the south and in other parts of the country. The Confederate flag burnings and other acts of defiance are not surprising. To many, it’s a long overdue response to state-imposed glorification of Confederate symbols, leaders and monuments.
Monuments to immorality and oppression don’t deserve respect.
Activist and artist name John Sims has a burn and bury project, that’s burning and burying Confederate flags across the south.
The Confederate flag is speech. A monument is speech. Be it Ben Tillman, Jeff Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, whomever. As is the word RACIST” written across them.
Sure it’s vandalism – and speech.
But what these men stand for, in the past and the present, is far worse than vandalism.
Someone suggested that a plaque be placed on the Tillman monument saying how much of a racist he was. ‘RACIST’ scrawled in red paint makes a better point. Taking the statue down makes an even greater point.
Even so, we must also take on these monuments in the courts with 1st and 14th Amendment challenges.
And at the ballot box by going after white supremacist politicians and being involved in upcoming redistricting efforts.
At the cash box – by not spending with white supremacist politicians and the small businesses, companies, corporations and others that support them.
Early in the morning, on Confederate Memorial Day in May 2000, before we were to go to the base of the Confederate Soldiers Monument and burn a Nazi and Confederate flag sewn together, someone desecrated the Soldiers Monument.
It didn’t stop us from doing what we had to do. It added to it.
When asked if I was the first to set fire to the flag back in 2000, I try to remind whoever is asking that I didn’t post up at the feet of “Johnny Reb” by myself. Efia Nwangaza, Bilal Machette and his son Sekou, my son Brian, Lawrence Moore, Jack Humphries, Sekou Sanders, Schnita Goodwin, Jamaal Moseley, and a few other people helped make sure that flag was burned to an ember and had my back.
That said, I hope that someone with General William Tecumseh Sherman burned one or more rebel flags as they burned down Columbia in 1865.
A twenty year old Brett Bursey burned a Confederate flag back in February 1969 in front of the USC president’s house to commemorate the killings of Sam Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith in Orangeburg the year before.
Many people have fought in the trenches for decades. They make up the history of our struggle in the place we call home.
Brett was arrested and charged with violating a state law (16-17-220) that made it illegal to “publicly mutilate, deface, defy, jeer a, trample upon or cast contempt by word or act, upon” the U.S., state or Confederate flags.
Charges were dropped against Brett but he never got his $200 bail money back.
And the flagpole was breeched before Bree Newsome scaled it.
Historian David Reynolds recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic about those that had snatched the flag from its place of respect and power. He mentions Newsome before telling the story of an incident in 1861 where Union officer Elmer Ellsworth went into Alexandria, Virginia and removed the Confederate flag from atop a hotel and was immediately shot by the hotelkeeper.
Reynolds left out Emmett Rufus “Sonny” Eddy. He called himself, as did we, Reverend E.X. Slave.
Back in 2002, Reverend E.X. Slave, a brick mason by trade, was the first person to climb up the flagpole, cut down that flag and set it on fire.
After the 2000 compromise moved the banner to the Statehouse grounds, Eddy often kept a lonely vigil on Gervais Street also named the Robert E. Lee Highway – that runs in front of the Soldiers Monument holding stick with multiple signs that read: “I Too Sing America” and “I Too Am America. Sometimes he wore shackles and chains on his ankles. Other times, he’d be there in his black Santa suit. “That flag depresses me,” he said. “It makes me think I’m going back into slavery.”
He once climbed over the short fence that protected the flag and shackled himself to the flagpole. “This is what happens when they put you back in slavery!” he yelled repeatedly.
Ya’ll know the story of Reverend E. Slave right? Walking down Main Street with a ladder that read “Nothing Without A Demand” as well as all the names of the people and organizations that fought against the flag.
A black man walking down the street with a ladder, what is strange about that?
And to put that ladder up against that flagpole. A long tall ladder. And what was the response from the police? To come with a ladder that was shorter than his ladder – spraying mace up at him only to realize that that the wind and gravity would send the burning mace right back on them.
Wearing his black Santa suit, he shouted, ‘This is for the children!” as he clung to the pole while police tried to arrest him.
Eddy didn’t come down off the ladder and say to the arresting officers, “I will comply,” because he had no intentions of doing so. E. yelled, “Anybody down there can promise me that this flag will not go back up until my trial? Anybody can make that promise? Make that promise and I’ll come down.”
The flagpole was scratched as the Bureau of Protective Services removed him and E. was charged with damaging a monument. The officers later filed injury claims.
In 2003, the Court of Appeals upheld a judge’s ruling that barred Eddy from the Statehouse grounds. But he did not give up. He kept on going.
A few helped bailed him out. No one came knocking on his door asking to interview him. Yet he came back time and time again to protest that flag. He went to jail time after time after time.
He’s gone now. He died in January 2005 after slipping into a diabetic coma.
After Bree Newsome climbed the pole a friend told me that a syndicated radio personality praised Newsome at the expense of those of us who live in this state.
The radio jock apparently joked, ‘what’s wrong with ya’ll down in South Carolina? Ya’ll better step up letting a sister from North Carolina come down and show ya’ll how it’s done.’
Newsome is charged with a similar statute (10-11-315) as Bursey’s ‘69 charge. “ … willfully and maliciously deface, vandalize, damage, or destroy or attempt to deface, vandalize, damage, or destroy any monument, flag, flag support, memorial, fence or structure located on the capitol.” The law was revised after the flag was placed on the grounds. She faces three years in jail and $5000 fine.
Newsome did a bold act. The flag should have been down before Senator Pinckney’s horse drawn funeral hearse arrived at the Statehouse.
When we burned the flag I was called irresponsible. Folks asked: “Why are you doing this?” Or: “Who put you up to this?”
Even so, the false notion that South Carolinians have been sitting around waiting for people to come in from out of state to fight our fights, sure, the right outside help is always welcome, but we’ve been fighting this fight for years and years and generations. And the people that stay in the fight and climb that ladder like Reverend E. Slave did and keep coming back and keep coming back even as they filed restraining order after restraining order after restraining order against him. That’s the history of our struggle.
Reverend E. Slave’s my hero.
A lot of people have been fighting over the removal of the Confederate flag from public property for decades. I’m glad the fight is moving to federal lands.
Sen. Kay Patterson filed the first amendment to take the flag down off the dome in 1976, 39 years ago, when he was in the House.
And despite much criticism, the South Carolina NAACP’s economic boycott of the state’s tourism industry had an effect. As did USC coaches Dawn Staley and Steve Spurrier speaking out. The NCAA ban against post season tournament play in the state – because of the flag – was bad for player recruitment.
Governor Haley deserves credit. I hope that it’s not just 9 deaths that caused her to act on the flag. One can hope that it was also growing up Nimrata Nikki Randahawa in rural Bamberg – a county that’s 54% black. And living in the town of Demark which is 86% black – where her father taught biology at HBCU Voorhees College.
Demark. Named after the country not the man. Where the Randahawa’s small family business – Exotica – made it because of black customers. It was the economic support of the black community that set her on her path. Demark. Where she was “too brown to be white and too white to be black. “ One can hope that maybe there’s a measure of solidarity buried deep beneath her predictable Republican politics.
In the legislature, Senator Paul Thurmond repudiating his father Strom’s legacy mattered. Jefferson Davis descendant and Republican state Rep. Jenny Horne telling the white, flag supporting men in the state legislature enough is enough mattered. Still, that doesn’t give them a pass for being wrong on Medicaid expansion and workers’ rights, especially their antipathy or contempt for organized labor and unions.
Years of marching, boycotting and agitating by scores of people whose names will never make it into the history books, all mattered.
Those that mattered the least are the ones who parachute in after all had been said and done to get their time on camera.
Lastly, I spoke in Marion Square, formerly Citadel Square, in the days after the murders. Marion Square sits at the corner of Calhoun, King and Meeting Streets. It’s a block away from Emanuel Church.
Rising 80 feet over Marion Square – since 1887, John C. Calhoun’s monument faces the street that bears his name. Calhoun, standing with his cloak over his shoulders and a scroll in his left hand, looks over the city reinforcing its white supremacy legacy.
Many say it was built high to keep the freed Africans from pushing it over. True or not, that’s the tale I pass on.
Organizers set up on the far side of the square, under the trees, across the park from the Calhoun monument – his back towards us.
It was a couple of days after a Confederate monument at White Point Garden in Charleston’s Battery was defaced with red spray paint with various messages that included “Black Lives Matter”, and the word “RACIST” and a reference to slavery was spray-painted in red on Calhoun’s statue. Workers were still cleaning off the paint.
Malik Zulu Shabazz and members of the New Black Panthers, one sporting a side arm, a sister with a beautiful Afro, all dressed in black, all in berets, marched up just before the program began.
One of the young brothers who helped organize the event served as MC. He talked about “keeping it 100.” I spoke first.
The crowd was mostly black and young – the people most likely to have disrespectful or deadly run-ins with the police, have trouble finding housing and jobs, money for school or health insurance, just to name a few. They felt that what happened at Emmanuel is about them too, as North Charleston and Walter Scott getting shot in the back is about them too. They weren’t in the forgiveness business. They saw it as a cover to allow Charleston to put on a good face to keep the money coming in. From slave tourism to tragedy tourism.
I said many of the things I’ve said everywhere I’ve spoken. That we must be disciplined and consistent in fighting for change. Don’t be like those you claim to condemn – don’t be violent, hateful bigots.
I talked about being vigilant in the days to come. To be aware of what’s going on around them. Protect themselves and their families if need be.
I was thinking about some flag supporters’ possible violent reaction to the flag coming down. As I was leaving my predominately black neighborhood to go to Charleston, a young white man in a red pick-up truck with his big Confederate flag flying from the back drives through the neighborhood. I thought – he probably has a gun – hoping to provoke someone.
Black people do not fear the flag. Most simply despise what it stands for. And people shot back at the Klan back in the days when I was coming up in the 60s and 70s.
I know my mother shoot back with her little .22 pistol when the Klan burned a cross in the field across from our house one night sometimes back in the 60s.
They’ll shoot back now.
I thought about the young Crips and Bloods, at the Statehouse holding signs on Gervais Street. For many of them this was their first time out on the street supporting a political demand. When they reached out to me my only advice was ‘discipline’ because I knew that some white man or men would try them or some white liberals would not understand them not wanting to sing unity songs with them, see them as allies or appreciate their “sacrifice.”
I was talking to a friend who’s now a deacon in the church I was baptized in Spartanburg. We share a birthday and I surprised him with a call. As we spoke he happened to mention that at noon, the Sunday after Emanuel, a young white man wearing a backpack shows up at the front door of the church saying he was homeless and wanted something to eat. I joked: “What would Jesus do?” He replied, “We let him in after we looked outside to make sure he was alone.” I asked, “Did you check his backpack?” My friend, “No, but Jesus may not have packed a gun, but a few of us in the church do.”
There’s also a story going around town, I heard it at the barber shop, that two young white men stood on the sidewalk outside of the largest black church in Columbia, also on the Sunday after the Emanuel murders, with rifles strapped over their shoulders. They may even been there to protect the church. Nobody really knows. Folks are wondering, “Why it never made the news?” Or is someone “trying to keep a lid on things?”
With the rash of church fires, federal and state law enforcement have held meetings with ministers and others across the state about protecting their sanctuaries. Telling people to be aware and protect themselves and their families is practical advice.
I immediately left after speaking in Marion Square. I didn’t stay to hear Shabazz say “it was time to finish the mission [of Denmark Vesey] and kill the slave masters and their goddamn families.”
Shabazz doesn’t say, where to start or who to kill first? That so if or when something bad happens he can say it’s not his doing.
He walks the same line as Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander Leland Summers and Council of Conservative Citizens president Earl Holt III who tried to separate themselves from Roof when at the core of their beliefs is race subjugation, separation or genocide. The difference is blacks aren’t looking to fight or kill whites, most are looking for acceptance – often at their peril.
Still, preaching revenge is not a way to justice. Just more violence and killing. And one has to be very careful these days as the person talking about “picking up the gun” “is usually either the police or working for them.”
So moving forward, some practical things.
March, picket, have teach-ins, organize, go to meetings, call meetings, read, learn the history of our struggle, and learn the history of their so-called struggle. Because you’ve got to know you’re enemy and we got to fight back. Participate. Disrupt when you have to. Call people out. Hold politicians and so-called leaders accountable. It is time to organize for the future, to teach our kids and our grandkids that this can be the beloved community Dr. King spoke of.
Someone should have sung – at Clementa’s homegoing – what we sang as we marched in the streets of Charleston. A song with no known author. Written probably right after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed:
“Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me. And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord. And be free…
No more crying. No more crying. No more crying over me. And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord. And be free…”
Fight on! Right on! Power to the people!