Having started the Civil War over slavery and defended Jim Crow segregation, South Carolina could have a third act in race relations – charting a path toward racial reconciliation.
A new S.C. ETV documentary, airing Monday, explores that possibility.
“A Seat at the Table” features civil rights activists, artists, historians, educators, faith, business and political leaders talking about racism and efforts to close wounds.
In the South, racial reconciliation would start with honest accounts about the region’s racial history, advocates say. White communities would acknowledge that the legacy of slavery and segregation continues to haunt the lives of African-Americans.
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Reconciling that past also would involve forgiveness, not blame, and whites and minorities working together to restore justice in public policies and institutions.
South Carolina could start an organization modeled after the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, whose work is featured in the film. The Institute’s “Welcome Table” program brings together stakeholders to discuss, frankly and openly, their communities’ racial challenges and how to take action to address them.
South Carolina could take a strong step toward racial reconciliation by conducting the first state-led investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre, advocates of reconciliation say.
On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, three young African Americans were killed and more than two dozen were wounded when state troopers opened fire at a crowd of mostly S.C. State students, protesting a segregated bowling alley.
On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, three young African Americans were killed and more than two dozen were wounded when state troopers opened fire at a crowd, protesting a segregated bowling alley.
At the time, the protesters – largely S.C. State University students – “assumed that justice would prevail ... assumed that (police) wouldn't shoot a 16-year-old kid who is unarmed,” said Cleveland Sellers, president of Voorhees College in Denmark.
Sellers, at the time, was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had not participated in organizing the protest but was there that night. He was shot, arrested and jailed.
A reporter who covered the shooting, Jack Bass, said the state never conducted an investigation. Gov. Robert McNair blamed a minority of “black power” advocates for causing the violence. The troopers were acquitted after a federal trial.
Bass, a Charleston historian, said McNair referred to the massacre as “a scar on the state's conscience.”
“I would like to see that scar removed,” added Bass, who has advocated for a formal investigation and restitution paid to the victims’ survivors.
Bass cited how Florida acknowledged a past racial incident. The state paid restitution in 1994 to the victims of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, when a white mob attacked the all-black town after a white woman claimed a black man had assaulted her.
Monetary awards paid to those who were shot in Orangeburg, the families of those who died and a trooper who was injured would bring “both justice and reconciliation” after the incident, Bass said.
There can be no reconciliation without restitution.
Charleston historian Jack Bass
“There can be no reconciliation without restitution,” he said.
Racial reconciliation “is needed now more than ever before” in South Carolina and the nation, said Bud Ferillo, an assistant director of “A Seat at the Table.”
The film covers South Carolina’s battles over the Confederate flag’s public display at the State House, including the tragic shooting this summer that led to the flag’s removal. But the film was mostly done before lawmakers removed the flag from the grounds in July in the wake of the racially motivated slaying of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church.
The family of the victims drew widespread praise for expressing forgiveness to the alleged killer, who posed in pictures with the flag.
But Ferillo said the Charleston shooting tragedy underscores the need for reconciliation.
“The further we can get away from the grace and unity of Charleston, the more we'll lose the enthusiasm and the opportunity to create the dialogue that breeds bridge building and forgiveness,” he said.
More than a year in the making, the film project was launched in part by the late John Rainey, a Camden attorney.
Rainey helped memorialize two Camden natives – African-American Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and Jewish financial and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch – in a sculpture called “Reconciliation” placed in a town square.
Last January, Rainey said he wanted the film to inspire a statewide conversation, positioning South Carolina to become “the birthplace of the modern reconciliation movement.” Rainey died unexpectedly in March, before completion of the film.
“I hope that discussion leads to action. Just talking is just a beginning, even though it's really hard to talk.
Betsy Newman, director of “A Seat at the Table”
“I hope that discussion leads to action,” said Betsy Newman, the film’s director. “Just talking is just a beginning, even though it's really hard to talk.”
After talking, they should work to formalize the process of reconciliation through public policy and other changes, Ferillo, Newman and others said.
Ferillo hopes advocates of reconciliation can create in South Carolina an organization similar to the Winter Institute in Mississippi.
C.L. Lorick, an African-American pastor in Columbia who also is featured in the film, said state leaders know the inequities that must be addressed. He cited the state’s so-called “Corridor of Shame,” where mostly black public schools along Interstate 95’s once-robust agricultural corridor have buckled for years under high poverty.
The state Supreme Court ruled last year on a lawsuit brought by poor rural school districts against the state more than 20 years ago, Lorick noted.
“The next move should not take another 10 years, if indeed our hearts are in the right direction for reconciliation,” he said.
Jamie Self: 803-771-8658
How to watch
“A Seat at the Table” airs at 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 7, on S.C. ETV. A studio discussion about the film follows at 8 p.m.
You can catch the film and discussion again Sunday, Sept. 27, at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.