Mary Ann Williams has been bringing her church youth group to the King Day at the Dome rally for 10 years, and, every year, they always sit in the same spot: by the statue of Benjamin Tillman.
The former governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina was a staunch white supremacist, known for his inflammatory quotes about lynching African-Americans and keeping them from voting. Williams said she had never told the students who Tillman was or what he stood for – until Monday.
“I told them he was prejudiced and wasn’t for the blacks,” she said. “Some of them wanted to get up.”
Those students, sitting at the foot of the Tillman statue, were just one of many contrasting images at the annual King Day at the Dome rally, sponsored by the S.C. chapter of the NAACP. More than 1,000 people marched on the State House, where the Confederate battle flag flies at the state’s monument to Confederate dead.
The event, now in its 15th year, touched on several issues – including voting rights, education and health care. But the flag remained the central issue, with marchers holding signs urging tourists not to visit South Carolina until it comes down.
“To hell with that flag,” boomed the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, during his “spiritual charge” to the crowd.
State officials put the Confederate battle flag atop the State House dome in 1962 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. The flag stayed there for 38 years. In 2000, after years of protest, state lawmakers agreed to remove the flag from the dome and place it at the Confederate war memorial in front of the State House. The state then adopted two official holidays – Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day – and erected an African-American history monument on the State House grounds.
But the compromise has not satisfied state and national civil rights leaders, who continue to press S.C. officials to remove the flag, which supporters say represents the state’s heritage.
The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers, an NAACP vice president, announced Monday a nationwide petition that people could sign to bring down the flag by texting the word “flag” to 62227. Rivers also criticized Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the Charleston Republican and former state Senate president pro tempore, for his role in the compromise that kept the flag on the State House grounds.
“To consider that man as president of the College of Charleston – have we gone crazy? Have we lost our minds?” Rivers asked the crowd, referring to McConnell’s plans to not run for a four-year term as lieutenant governor so he can concentrate on applying to be the Charleston college’s next president.
Lorraine Miller, interim president and chief executive of the national NAACP, told the crowd the best way they can make a difference is to vote.
“The NAACP mobilized 1.2 million voters to the ballot box in 2012. And we are on the way, already beginning our efforts for 2014. We need you. We want you. We must have you,” she said.
While 2014 is an election year, only one elected official spoke – state Rep. Leola C. Simpson-Robinson, D-Greenville – a reflection of S.C. NAACP president Lonnie Randolph’s wishes to not let politicians use the rally to further their political careers. Yet politics were front and center for most of the rally, with speakers criticizing Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and the GOP-controlled state Legislature for not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Haley and other Republican lawmakers said the state cannot afford to expand the health insurance program for the poor, citing the rising cost of health care and the state’s host of other needs, including roads and education.
The Medicaid expansion issue was the catalyst for a State House protest last week dubbed “Truthful Tuesday,” modeled after the “Moral Monday” protests that Barber started in North Carolina. The Truthful Tuesday group plans to hold more protests, with an organizational meeting scheduled for next week.
“It’s encouraging to see that people are rising up. People are not accepting that just because people have temporary political power or the majority at the moment in the Legislature that they have the final say,” Barber said.
“The people have the final say.”
Jeff Wilkinson contributed. Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.