Magazine article The American Prospect

Southern Cross

Magazine article The American Prospect

Southern Cross

Article excerpt

George W. Bush has ducked the question of whether South Carolina should haul down the Confederate flag. But regardless of Bush's position, the flag will likely come down, and soon. Even before the huge demonstration on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, some of South Carolina's most venerable and conservative institutions (the Citadel, Bob Jones University, the South Carolina Baptist Convention) have been lobbying to lower the flag, stimulated in part by the NAACP's call last July for a tourism boycott.

Black South Carolinians, roughly 30 percent of the population, have been against the flag since it was raised by an all-white general assembly in 1962. But serious debate has begun only recently. The first public hearing took place in 1994, when the Republican-controlled house killed the Democrat-controlled senate's plan to move the flag from the capitol dome to a Confederate monument on the statehouse grounds. Two years later, Republican Governor David Beasley--tilting at the windmill of national prominence--proposed a similar compromise on statewide television. The house killed it again, and Beasley lost his bid for re-election in 1998.

The NAACP boycott has upped the stakes dramatically. South Carolina's economy is heavily dependent on tourism. In 1997 more than two million blacks visited the state and spent $280 million; now more than 80 groups have canceled events there. But the boycott's effect on the state's prestige may be as important as lost revenue. South Carolina won't ever be at the vanguard of anything--higher education, politics, high-tech industry--until it convinces the rest of the country that it's not full of unreconstructed racists.

Jim Clyburn, the only black congressman from South Carolina and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has tapped into this anxiety. "South Carolina is well-positioned to be a leader in so many ways," he told a gathering of the NAACP on Hilton Head Island in December 1999. "It makes no sense for us to continue fighting the Civil War ... or if it suits you better, the War of Northern Aggression." Clyburn is telling white South Carolinians they can be as racist as they want to be, but they have to take the flag down because it is as bad for them as it is for blacks. …

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