Audacity on Trial : TALKING UNION STILL AMOUNTS TO A PUNISHABLE OFFENSE IN PARTS OF THE OLD SOUTH

Article excerpt

Charleston, South Carolina

They give "ghost tours" of the Historic District in the evening, as if ghosts weren't present enough without conjury in this too-charming city: the ghosts of planters who stepped from porches of the grand mansions along the Battery within sight of Fort Sumter, headed for the auction house on Chalmers Street, there to appraise human backs and forearms and hips; the ghosts of Africans thus measured, put up for bid; of the ships that brought more captive Africans to this port than to any other American city, and of the black dockers, freemen and slaves, who loaded up the rice and cotton that the new arrivals would soon toil to produce; the ghost-vestiges of extraordinary violence, dressed up as heritage and gracious living--the South in inverted commas, which favored almost no one who lived in it, including the poor and landless whites who died for it under a battle flag that Charleston is too polite to fly but that figures, nevertheless, in our story.

This past June 9 the flag of the Confederacy hung lifeless in the afternoon heat in front of the state Capitol in Columbia. A year ago it was demoted from its place atop the Statehouse dome, and on this day the air around it vibrated with the shouts of people demonstrating in support of a labor union, International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422, that had been instrumental in organizing the protests that brought the flag down. At the height of the antiflag campaign last year, 46,000 people had marched on Columbia. This was a smaller crowd, about 5,000, but an old-timer told me he had never in seventy-five years seen so many people turn out for a union in South Carolina. They came because the state is gunning for this union of black dockworkers from Charleston who weren't polite about the flag and weren't docile when a shipping company whose vessels they'd worked for twenty-three years decided to use scab labor.

Their troubles with the state began on January 19, 2000, two days after the historic march against the flag. A ship from the Danish Nordana Shipping Lines pulled into the Port of Charleston. Nineteen scabs were mustered to unload it. On three of Nordana's prior visits the union had picketed without police interference. This time 600 battle-dressed troops from throughout the state surrounded the dock, decamped outside Local 1422's hall, patrolled the waters by boat, flew overhead in helicopters, mobilized armored vehicles and horse units, armed themselves with rubber bullets and "bean bags" full of buckshot, beat their batons against their riot shields and waited, waited in the rain for something to happen. After midnight something did, and now five longshoremen--four black and one white, four from Local 1422 and one from the smaller checkers' and clerks' union, ILA Local 1771--are under house arrest awaiting trial this summer on felony riot and other charges that could send them to prison for five to ten years.

They are the Charleston Five, Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford, Peter Washington Jr., Ricky Simmons and Jason Edgerton. But the chant that rang in Columbia on June 9 was "We are the Charleston Five!" because the outcome of this case will not be felt by those five men alone.

The only thing stronger than racism in South Carolina is the hatred of unions and the attendant fear that workers might choose class solidarity over skin and challenge the setup that depends on keeping most of them poor, weak and divided. South Carolina is hardly the only state where this is so, but with some of the lowest wages and the second-lowest rate of unionization in the country, it is among the worst. The white Attorney General, Charlie Condon, openly links his prosecution of the Five with preservation of South Carolina's anti-union "right to work" laws, and it is not happenstance that he has chosen to make an example of the state's best-organized, highest-wage workers, of powerful black workers and white race traitors. …