Politics & Government

On King Day, Trump hangs over SC State House rally

This year’s King Day at the Dome rally was missing the presidential candidates who took to the steps of the S.C. State House a year ago. However, the winner of November’s presidential election had a steady presence at Monday’s rally.

“I’ve got to say, last year, we had a whole lot more people here,” said state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, D-Richland, as he looked at the estimated 800 people at the annual march on the State House in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “Last year, we had the nation’s attention. ... We had hope. We thought Hillary (Clinton) would get in and help us a little.”

Instead, the election of Donald Trump – who many at the S.C. NAACP-organized march worry will not share their priorities – “overcast” the rally, in Thigpen’s words, along with the cloudy sky.

As marcher Willi Johnson put it, “the most relevant election to what we’re doing here was (President Barack Obama’s 2008) ‘Yes, We Can.’ But the election we just had now was, ‘No, We Can’t.’”

Hundreds marched to the capitol’s north steps from Columbia’s Zion Baptist Church. But, this year’s event, lacked the high-profile speakers of last year, when 2,000 came out to hear speeches from Clinton and U.S. Sen. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, ahead of South Carolina’s Democratic primary.

Not all of the speakers Monday were anti-Trump.

Lewis Nelson, grand master of Columbia’s Prince Hall Grand Lodge, told the crowd they had an obligation to get behind President-elect Trump, who takes office Friday.

“He has an opportunity to do a lot for my people — black and brown, Jew and Protestant, Catholic and Muslim,” Nelson said. “He has the opportunity to do the things he promised.”

But Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, focused on the dangers of what she called the “shocking display of inhumanity” as the GOP-controlled Congress rushes to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“Then, they are going to come for Medicaid ... and the people who cannot get health care otherwise,” Berkowitz said. “Then, they are going to come for Medicare, and tell our senior citizens, ‘Here’s a little bit of money. Make it last.’ ”

She led the crowd in a chant of “no repeal without replace.”

Others in the crowd shared a sense of uncertainty about where the country is headed after a long, divisive election campaign.

“One of the things that is ... disturbing is instead of moving forward, it appears that race relations ... is headed in the wrong direction,” said Cartha Harris, a 68-year-old retired accounting manager from Hopkins. “How we see each other as people, relationships between culture and races, and how we see progress, it’s going backward instead of forward.”

Some wanted to focus on moving the country forward.

“We have a lot of work to do in terms of healing this country, in terms of working together and making sure that the children have the best possible education,” Robert Morris, a retired school administrator from Northeast Richland. “It’s one America. It’s not black America. It’s not white America. It’s the United States of America. That’s what we must focus on, working together, all races.”

Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said King set the example for how to deal with the present.

“As we confront hateful words and actions in this generation, good people must not be silent,” Harrison said. “We must all follow Dr. King’s example and speak out and take action in pursuit of justice.”

Even as some expressed doubts about the future, state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, said the 17-year history of the dome rally – originally a protest of the Confederate flag that once flew on the State House grounds – showed how activism can achieve results.

“We heard, ‘The flag’s not going to come down. Stop marching. It’s a waste of time,’” Howard said. “And look where we are now.”

Monday’s rally was only the second since the flag was removed from the State House in 2015.

The Right Rev. Mildred B. Hines, presiding prelate of the AME Zion Church’s South Atlantic district, found a faith lesson in the march.

“Before Martin was, God is,” Hines said in a sermon at Zion Baptist before the march. “God’s ‘is-ness’ got Martin through when he was dreaming, and God’s ‘is-ness’ will get us through now ... and I hope there are no professors of English here today.”

The sparser turnout for Monday’s march and rally disappointed Jai’Lyn Lowe, a Winthrop University freshman who said she had attended every King Day at the Dome since she was in the eighth grade in Aiken.

But she went away from the event more determined to get involved.

“I hope I can bring some more out here with me next time,” Lowe said.

Staff writer Avery G. Wilks contributed. Bristow Marchant: 803-771-8405, @BristowatHome, @BuzzAtTheState