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What the Capital City Club did for Columbia

On Wednesday, I was asked to speak at the Capital City Club’s 20th anniversary breakfast about the club’s story, and why it matters to Columbia and South Carolina. I reproduce my remarks below, slightly edited for space:

So much has been said here this morning, but I suppose as usual it falls to the newspaper guy to bring the bad news:

The Capital City Club is an exclusive club. By the very nature of being a club, of being a private entity, it is exclusive.

There are those who are members, and those who are not. And even if you are a member, there are expectations that you meet certain standards. Just try being seated in the dining room without a jacket. And folks, in a country in which a recent Gallup Poll found that only 6 percent of American men still wear a tie to work every day, a standard like that is pretty exclusive.

But it is the glory of the Capital City Club that it changed, and changed for the better, what the word “exclusive” meant in Columbia, South Carolina.

Once upon a time — and not all that long ago — “exclusive” had another meaning. It was a meaning that in one sense was fuzzy and ill-defined, but the net effect of that meaning was stark and obvious. And it was a meaning by no means confined to Columbia or to South Carolina.

Its effect was that private clubs — the kinds of private clubs that were the gathering places for people who ran things, or decided how things would be run — did not have black members, or Jewish members, or women as members. Not that the clubs necessarily had any rules defining that sense of “exclusive.” It was as often as not what was called a “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which was the title of a 1947 film about the phenomenon.

Forty years after that film was released, good people in Columbia were distressed to look around them and see the effects of such agreements in our community. A black executive originally from Orangeburg, who thought he was going home when his company sent him here, was unable to do his job because he could not get into a private club. It was noticed that for the first time in recent history, a commanding general at Fort Jackson was not extended a courtesy membership by a local club. He was Jewish. More and more such facts were reported in the pages of The Columbia Record in the mid-’80s. The clips I’ve read were written by my colleague Clif LeBlanc....

(T)he unstated policies of private clubs are an unusual, and even uncomfortable, topic for journalists. The reason we write about government and politics so much is that we feel completely entitled and empowered to hold them fully accountable, and we have no problem saying they must do this, or they must not do that. But whether a private club votes to admit a particular private citizen or not is something else altogether. You can’t pass a state law or a local ordinance to address the problem, not in a country that enshrines freedom of association in its constitution.

But The Record did everything a newspaper could and should do: It shone a light on the problem. What happened next depended upon the private consciences of individuals.

A group of such individuals decided that the only thing to do was to change the dynamic, by starting a new kind of club. One of those individuals was (former editor of The State and The Record) Tom McLean....

I spoke to Tom just yesterday about what happened 20 years ago, and Tom was still Tom. He didn’t want anybody setting him up as some sort of plaster saint .... He wanted to make sure that he was not portrayed as some sort of crusader against the existing private clubs at the time. As he noted, he and other founders were members of some of those clubs.

What he and the other founders did oppose ... was, and I quote: “Arbitrary, categorical exclusion based on race, religion or gender.”

Yes, there was a moral imperative involved, but it was also common sense. It was also a matter of that hallowed value of the private club, personal preference. Tom, and Carl Brazell, and Shelvie Belser, and I.S. Leevy Johnson and Don Fowler and the rest all chose to be members of a club that did not practice the kind of arbitrary exclusion that they abhorred.

And here’s the wonderful thing about that, what Tom wanted to make sure I understood was the main thing: By making this private, personal decision for themselves, they changed their community.

Once one club became inclusive, other clubs quickly followed suit. Something that no law could have accomplished happened with amazing rapidity.

The measure of the Capital City Club’s success is that the thing that initially set it apart became the norm....

I was asked to speak to you this morning ... to share with you the reason that if I’m going to belong to a club, this one will always be my choice:

It’s the club that exists for the purpose of being inclusive, the club that changed our community for the better....

Those of you who are in the 94 percent who have put the anachronistic practice of wearing neckties behind you probably think the whole thing is pretty silly — a bunch of suits getting together to congratulate themselves on how broadminded they are.

But you’re wrong to think that, because of the following: Such clubs exist. People who exercise political and economic power in the community gather within them to make decisions. Until the Capital City Club came into being, blacks and Jews and women were not admitted to those gatherings. Now they are. And that matters.

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