Letters to the Editor

White leaders in South Carolina must stop ignoring lessons from the state’s painful past

Ben Tillman statue, among the many monuments on the State House grounds and elsewhere in South Carolina receiving extra scrutiny.
Ben Tillman statue, among the many monuments on the State House grounds and elsewhere in South Carolina receiving extra scrutiny.

South Carolina has arguably the most compelling history of any state in the nation, when it comes to issue of race, which has put it in the national and international spotlight. It is a profound history with many lessons.

Could it be that the massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston was the indirect result of historic lessons that the state itself has ignored?

Have we ignored not just racial inequality and injustice, but the history of violent oppression that some state leaders were often involved in?

South Carolina governor and senator Ben Tillman bragged about killing African Americans, claiming that was necessary to keep them in their place and preserve the Anglo-Saxon way of life.

There was the Hamburg Massacre, the Orangeburg Massacre, and the lynching of postmaster Frazier Baker and his infant daughter in Lake City.

An Equal Justice Initiative report indicates that between 1877 and 1950, 164 African Americans were lynched in 36 South Carolina counties.

This is the kind of history one would rather forget, but we do so at our peril, especially when the forces responsible for it still exist. Such a horrific history, and lingering vestiges of racial inequality, have earned the state a reputation as that of a racist, intolerant backwater so stuck in a time warp that many people in the nation do not want to visit, live or invest unless they are willing and able to tolerate persistent and glaring racial inequality and injustice.

The consequence of the state’s history have often gone ignored by state leaders, even though there is significant empirical evidence that it has hurt the state, at least economically, if not culturally and socially.

Despite the presence and persistence of evil forces bent on preserving dubious traditions and values, however, South Carolina's story is one of competing narratives. On one hand, it is a state trying to hang on to values and traditions that exalt its white citizens while devaluing its African American ones.

On the other hand, it is a state trying to come to terms with its history and right some wrongs by allowing and encouraging the emergence of the better angels of our better nature in symbolic and substantive ways.

There are white leaders and other citizens in South Carolina who admit that many mistakes were made in the past, that we still grapple with the legacy of slavery and its impact on the lives of African Americans, and that they have a critically important role to play in the process, ensuring equality and justice for all of the state’s citizens.

Going forward, it will be extremely important that they step up and use whatever they have at their disposal to combat racism and bigotry wherever it raises its ugly head in order to discourage, dissuade and halt the ill intentions of their less-enlightened brethren who hate, have no conscience and will go to the extremes of murder in order to advance and preserve their worldview.

It is enough for African Americans today to fear disenfranchisement and discrimination due to the color of their skin.

Can we call ourselves civilized if we are indifferent to a climate in which we also have to fear for our very lives, as our ancestors did in the first half of the 20th century?

The indignation and outrage of white people at racial injustice is imperative because, as the Charleston shooting makes abundantly clear, the process toward true racial justice and equality in South Carolina is a work in progress that is vulnerable and capable of being derailed by ill-intentioned forces, especially when people of good will assume a posture of indifference that indicates that all is well.

Nine people died in a Charleston church because of the color of their skin. After our emotions settle, do we go back to business as usual or do we honor them by vowing that we will do all that we can to prevent racial violence and hate crimes against anybody in our state?

Racial disparities in income, employment, education and health that are historic in nature plaque a large percentage of South Carolina’s African American residents. These unfortunate conditions won’t change until the state completely comes to terms with its history, resolves to avoid mistakes of the past, and resolves to ensure a future of opportunity and equal life chances for all of the state’s residents, regardless of race, color or creed.

The state must decide what it wants to be and how it will be defined.

The writer is chairman of the South Carolina African American Commission.