Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 15 | 'Time to call a duck a duck'

Whites and blacks accuse each other of bringing race into the conversation.

May 17, 2007 

Unfinished business, by definition, gets in the way. What's undone demands attention at inconvenient times, in embarrassing ways. Then we're caught, unwilling, unprepared, and more harm is done.

Many who want a bridge or oppose a bridge remember segregation. The limitations or privileges, depending on race, of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties is part of their past.

While segregation is no longer the law, the custom of separation lingers in country churches, community gatherings, social clubs and bars, in living rooms.

And when a fight like this comes up, so does the unfinished business.

The environmentalists say Rep. Jim Clyburn started it, this race-tinged battle. Clyburn says an online forum, scducks.com, started it, and a meeting with conservation groups sealed it.

For Angela Viney — then with S.C. Wildlife, now with Upstate Forever — the conflict started with a 2001 radio show. She remembers hearing Clyburn charge on the show that racism lurked behind opposition to the bridge.

She was stunned. "Race is not a consideration," she says.

Blan Holman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, says, "It caught folks by surprise. Race was not a part of the bridge issue at all. If anything, our record of conservation in South Carolina is a strong one, working with minority populations."

Holman notes that record includes assistance to black residents of Sandy Island, in the Waccamaw Neck, who didn't want a bridge and road to the mainland and the ensuing logging and development. The residents were backed by the law center, the Coastal Conservation League and the Department of Transportation.

In 1997, the island became a Public Trust Preserve, purchased with DOT and Nature Conservancy funds.

"Our work is colorblind," says Jane Lareau of the League.

But there is an uncomfortable division of pro and con: Many black residents around Lake Marion support a bridge and want the development it might bring. Many white landowners and environmental activists oppose a bridge and the environmental changes it would bring.

Jim Kelly, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Columbia, is among the more persistent and vocal bridge opponents. Over the years of the controversy, he has served as swamp guide to newspaper and television reporters and to the crew of the "Promises Made" documentary.

"It's a silly idea, spending a tremendous amount of money on something that's not necessary," says Kelly. He ticks off his objections: poor blacks without cars don't need a bridge; why not provide other infrastructure, such as water and sewer; why not repair the decaying U.S. 601 bridges and causeways crossing the Congaree River and flood plain.

Kelly loves the Santee Swamp; over 50 years, he has come to fish or just hide out at least 300 times, he estimates. He has seen alligators, otters, deer, pileated woodpeckers (four in a tree once), white ibis, a merlin, red-shouldered hawks, plenty of barred owls, even eagles (there's a nest below the railroad trestle).

But the love competes with his ire: "These people, if they want to stay there, it's not the government's responsibility to make it possible. If you're able-bodied, you've got to go where the jobs are, not have them brought to you."

He says Clyburn accused him, during a radio show call-in, of being a racist. In return, he accuses Clyburn of believing, "If you don't want the bridge, you're against poor black people."

Kelly's rebuttal: "Let's get those people trained and moved somewhere else. I don't believe in making jobs to help people live in the swamp."

Clyburn's dismay and, perhaps, intransigence, arose after attacks on him at a duck hunters' online forum. Comments such as Kelly's dug him in deeper.

From 2001 to 2003, Clyburn's staff monitored the forum. Among discussion-board comments on the proposed bridge, some adorned with an Afro-hairdo icon or expletives, were multiple attacks on Clyburn and "dark democrats," including a wish "to give every last one of them one million dollars cash and a one way ticket back to the dark continent."

Frequent remarks about welfare recipients and bridge fishing include such doggerel as, "Wait'in for a welfare check sho would be fine / If I had a new fishing bridge to pass da time."

John Ball III, a real-estate developer, is one of the Web site's owners. He lives on U.S. 601, where the Wateree and Congaree rivers form the Santee, and counts himself the third generation to hunt in the area.

He says, "Any time anybody brings up race as a factor — and a lot of people accuse Rep. Clyburn of that — either way it's wrong."

Of the message board's racist chatter, he says, "We delete a good bit of that stuff. I won't make excuses for it."

Ball says he finds neither harm nor benefit to a bridge, but "I don't know if it's the best use of tax money."

Robert Nance, a district director on Clyburn's South Carolina staff, ticks off skirmishes: duck hunters at a bridge meeting "in camouflage stuff with their duck calls to drown out Clyburn," Web talk on the make and cost of cars parked at Clyburn's Columbia office.

He says, "Once it turned racial and nasty, it was a whole new ball game."

Actually, it was the same ol' ball game.

In 2003, the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass opened. The $4.2 million walkway crossing S.C. 277 reunited neighborhoods split by the four-lane commute to northeastern suburbs.

The walkway also was a response, as most are, to pedestrian deaths: five between 1975 and 1989, including a fifth-grader. But it was attacked then, and now, as a boondoggle, a monument to ego, a "bridge that comes from no place and one that goes to nowhere." Which should sound familiar.

In one 2003 Capitol Column, Clyburn responded to attacks on the 277 overpass and the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector this way: "I do not believe I was elected to perpetuate disparate treatment or to maintain substandard neighborhoods."

In another 2003 column on the Connector, he wrote, "It is time to call a duck a duck. Issues of race prevented this bridge from being realized for more than 50 years. Although the euphemisms are different today, the reality remains the same."

A meeting with environmental groups inadvertently iced his cake. He remembers an activist's commentary this way: "'I was at the lake, and I saw this black man sitting on the bank, fishing for his supper,' and then she said, 'I don't want that ruined.'"

The speaker — Viney — was sincere in her vow, which moved her. She expected Clyburn to be moved, too. Instead, he was infuriated, still is: "Well, I want that man to fish for recreation, not necessity. I don't want him fishing for his supper."

Clyburn recalls, at that same meeting, offering to back down if studies showed "adverse impacts on the environment and threats to wildlife." He says he added, "If, on the other hand, a study comes in and concludes there aren't threats to wildlife and adverse impacts, I expect you to remove your opposition.

"There was not one sound," says Clyburn, "and I knew they knew they were not telling the truth." Viney has a completely different memory of that meeting. She says, "You know what I remember? I remember how I left that meeting. I hugged him.

"I thought, 'This is a great man, a man I could stand behind, the type of leader I looked up to when I was an undergraduate.'"

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