SOUTH CAROLINA’S discussion about race rages on — whether we want to have it or not.
When I wrote a column a few months ago expressing the opinion that we don’t talk about race enough with purpose and on purpose, I received emails, calls and letters from people who agreed. But quite a few said I was simply stirring the pot and should leave well enough alone; you know, let bygones be bygones.
It’s just not that simple.
Fact is we’ve been having a conversation on race for decades in this state, even if we aren’t very good at it. While there have been some laudable intentional efforts, it’s largely an unorganized, unmonitored discussion that rushes along like a mighty river, receiving our collective attention only when it rages and overflows its banks.
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It’s taking place via private discussions at home, over dinner and at the water cooler as well as in the halls of government, our courts, our schools and colleges. It plays out in the media — whether it’s in news pages, TV and radio broadcasts or social media. Our letter writers certainly keep the conversation going.
And, don’t look now, but that conversation has picked up pace in recent months as high-profile events and issues from the past and present have commanded attention.
Friendship Nine, George Stinney
Last month the York County justice system finally did mete out justice in the case of the Friendship Nine, when a judge vacated the convictions of 10 black men for the crime of sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill in 1961. Those men — nine of whom would later become known as the Friendship Nine — chose to spend a month in jail working on a chain gang rather than to pay a $100 fine for trespassing and walk free. Their goal was to expose how wrong the law and the system that spawned it were.
In asking that the convictions be vacated, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett rightly contended that the law in 1961 was unjust — and so were the convictions. Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III — nephew of the Judge Hayes who convicted the Friendship Nine 54 years ago — signed the order.
Six weeks prior, a judge had ruled that a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney got an unfair trial and was wrongly executed in 1944 for the killing of two white girls.
Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen ruled that South Carolina wrought a great injustice when it killed this child — the youngest to be executed in the United States in the 20th century — in the state’s electric chair just three months after he was arrested in a segregated mill town in Clarendon County. While most of the evidence from the original trial was gone, Judge Mullen heard testimony in the 70-year-old case in January and determined that the proceeding was unfair and that it was impossible to determine the boy’s guilt or innocence.
One expert witness said that a confession by young Stinney was “coerced, compliant and false.” Civil rights activists long have held this case up as an example of how easily a black defendant could be railroaded by police, prosecutors, juries and judges who were all white.
We should find some solace in these wrongs having been somewhat righted, but we can never restore George Stinney’s life or make the Friendship Nine whole; we can simply clear their records. We can’t feel good about having had these albatrosses of racial injustice tied around our collective necks so long.
But what we can do is agree to have more intentional, productive discussions about not only reconciling our divisive past and strengthening race relations but ensuring that we build a society that embraces equality, justice and diversity.
Clemson, S.C. State
Clemson University has the smallest share of African-American students of any public four-year S.C. college. S.C. State University has the largest. Each is dealing with very different struggles — Clemson must respond to demands for more diversity, and S.C. State is fighting for its very life — but race is a common denominator.
There’s much racial tension at Clemson that won’t go away on its own. It’s going to take serious dialogue and action. It’s not an issue that Clemson officials have simply ignored; they’ve tried various things over the years aimed at recruiting more black students. For years, African-Americans have comprised only about 6 percent of the Clemson student body. The average black student population among all of the state’s four-year colleges is 22 percent; African-Americans make up 28 percent of our state’s population.
Despite its efforts, Clemson hasn’t done enough to diversify its student population; more importantly, it’s not done a good enough job of making those who do come feel comfortable.
And events in recent months haven’t helped matters. Stupidity — from a street-gang-themed “Cripmas” fraternity party to hateful social media comments — has understandably led to demands from some students and faculty for administrators to address the school’s racial problems by recruiting more minority students and professors, building a multicultural center and increasing spending on student organizations for minorities.
There are also calls for university officials to rename Tillman Hall, which was named for former U.S senator and former Gov. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a hate-filled racist who mercilessly terrorized and killed black people and incited others to do the same.
Clemson’s board refuses to rename the building but has pledged its commitment to diversity. Board chairman David Wilkins has said a name change would only be a “symbolic gesture,” adding that there are more meaningful changes Clemson can make. Deciding to keep the name or ditch it is a gesture or message of some kind, one that people will interpret based on where they sit.
At S.C. State, we have a confluence of years of horrible fiscal and operational management on the part of the university’s board and administration and poor oversight by state lawmakers and governors. A major bone of contention has been the fact that the state’s lone historically black college has never gotten sufficient support — financial or otherwise — from state leaders.
Debate rages over whether S.C. State should live or die. Some question the need today for a publicly supported university for black students. The question ignores the school’s origins; it is a product of an era when whites refused to allow blacks to be educated alongside them, and has been in existence 119 years.
But its future remains uncertain as lawmakers consider ousting the board and president and appointing temporary leadership. How S.C. State is handled will be viewed through multiple prisms, including race.
A way forward
All of these events and issues are emblematic of the complexity of our ever-present, unresolved past and ever-evolving present and future. South Carolina is a much better place than it used to be, but race remains a divisive issue.
Few days go by without debate about the Confederate flag that flies on our State House grounds. There’s much consternation and conversation over causes and solutions for the appallingly high rate of crime among young black men and black-on-black crime.
The unorganized, ongoing conversation won’t be pretty. At times it will be petty and unprofitable, as extremists and opportunists are allowed to dominate the discourse. Still, it can be a healthy, natural and cleansing process if people of good will step up to lead us to better conversations and a better place.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.