Letter from South Carolina

By Wachter, Paul | The Nation, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Letter from South Carolina


Wachter, Paul, The Nation


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. …

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