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Living down our history

MY GRANDMOTHER used to tell a story about when she was a very little girl living in the Washington area.

Her family was from South Carolina. Her father was an attorney working for the federal government. One of their neighbors was a U.S. senator from South Carolina. When her parents learned that she had visited the senator in his garden, sitting on his lap and begging for a peek under his eye patch, they were shocked and appalled.

The senator was “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the state’s former governor, and a vehement advocate of lynching who had participated in the murders of black South Carolinians as a “Red Shirt” vigilante.

Grandma’s people were of a very different political persuasion, as were of the founders of this newspaper, which was established for the express purpose of fighting the Tillman machine. That’s a second personal connection for me, and one of which I’m proud: We still fight the things that race-baiter stood for.

Ben Tillman launched his rise to power with a fiery speech in Bennettsville, the town where I was born. But we’ve come a long way since then. Two very different politicians have spoken in Bennettsville in recent days.

In November, Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke there, outlining her plan “to cut the dropout rate among minority students in half and help a new generation of Americans pursue their dreams.”

John Edwards was there Wednesday. Tillman was a populist; John Edwards is a populist. But there the resemblance ends. Former Sen. Edwards’ advocacy for the poor helped endear him to black voters in South Carolina in 2004, propelling him to victory in that year’s primary here. His appearance in B’ville was in connection with his attempt to repeat that achievement.

So my hometown and my home state have come a long way in the past century or so, at least with regard to the intersection of race and politics.

Not far enough, of course. I don’t just say that because a statue honoring Tillman still stands on the State House grounds, a few yards from where the Confederate flag still flies.

On the day that this newspaper endorsed Barack Obama, our publisher’s assistant passed on a phone message from a reader who was livid because we are “supporting a black man for president of the United States.” He continued: “I am ashamed that we’ve got a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, one of the best cities in America, and yet we’ve got a black operation supporting black candidates.... I am disappointed and upset that we’ve got a black newspaper right here in the city of Columbia.”

How many white South Carolinians still think that way? Too many, if there’s only one of them. But such people stand out and are worth mentioning because we have come so far, and increasingly, people who think the way that caller does are the exception, not the rule.

And truth be told, South Carolina is not the only part of these United States where you can still find folks whose minds are all twisted up over race.

As I noted, Mr. Edwards did very well among black voters in 2004, but not this time. Several months ago, Sen. Clinton seemed to be the heir to that support. The wife of the “first black president” had lined up a lot of African-American community leaders, which was a big part of why she commanded an overwhelming lead in S.C. polls.

But in the last few weeks, something happened. Sen. Obama won in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, and black South Carolinians began to believe he had a chance, and that a vote for Obama would not be “wasted.” This week, according to pollster John Zogby, he’s had the backing of between 56 and 65 percent of black voters, while Sen. Clinton can only claim at most 18 percent of that demographic.

And as the days wear down to what is an almost-certain Obama victory in South Carolina, Sen. Clinton has gone on to spend most of her time campaigning elsewhere, leaving her husband behind to bloody Obama as much as he can.

So it is that I would expect the Clinton campaign to say, after Saturday, that she didn’t really try to win here. But there’s another narrative that could emerge: Sure, he won South Carolina, but so did Jesse Jackson — just because of the huge black vote there. To win in November, Democrats need a candidate with wider appeal, right?

Maybe that won’t happen. It would be outrageous if it did. But those with an outrageous way of looking at politics see it as a possibility. Dick Morris — the former Clinton ally (but now a relentless critic), the master of triangulation — wrote in The New York Post this week: “Obama’s South Carolina victory will be hailed as proof that he won the African-American vote. Such block voting will trigger the white backlash Sen. Clinton needs to win.”

As a South Carolinian who’s proud of how far my state has come, I want to say right now, well ahead of time: As Joe Biden got himself in trouble for saying, and as Iowa voters confirmed, Barack Obama is no Jesse Jackson. Nor is he Bill Clinton, or John Edwards, or anybody else. He’s just Barack Obama, and Barack Obama is the best-qualified Democrat seeking the presidency of the United States.

And no one should dismiss South Carolinians for being wise enough to see that.

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