JOHN RAINEY was a man whose great passion and persistence marched right up to “obsession” and plowed over it. I can recall endless conversations with him about the most intricate intricacies of South Carolina’s byzantine budgetary processes, back during his battles with then-state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel over the way the cocaine afficionado and future felon was misleading the public about our state’s taxes.
More significantly, the Camden philanthropist who made Mark Sanford and tried to break Nikki Haley worked tirelessly to expose and repair South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame. Perhaps more significant still was his final obsession: racial reconciliation.
As his longtime friend and “Corridor of Shame” producer and director Bud Ferillo wrote in a guest column after his untimely death in March, Mr. Rainey was troubled by “the divisions that continue to hold South Carolina back: gaps in quality race relations and income disparity; petty partisanship; lapses in ethics; and voter and donor apathy.”
“The challenges he has bequeathed to all of us are simply stated,” Mr. Ferillo wrote, “but require heavy lifting: restoring integrity and civility in public discourse; a statewide conversation about race and reconciliation; action, not words, to educate all the children of all the people.”
That work enters its next phase on Monday, when SCETV airs the documentary that Mr. Rainey underwrote, “A Seat at the Table: Pathways to Reconciliation.”
The film’s producer, Betsy Newman, gave one of the best explanations I’ve seen of this ill-defined concept. Reconciliation, she told The State last year, “requires dialogue over time that is very focused on achieving the goal of, at least, white people admitting what history has really taken place in South Carolina, and black people being willing to forgive.”
It’s a tall order in a state where a significant minority of our legislators were still insisting that there were no racial undertones to the Confederate flag, or even the Civil War, even after a flag-draped white supremacist slaughtered nine black victims during a Bible study in June at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. But it seems less daunting today than it did before the massacre, because the response by the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians and even legislators was something very much akin to Ms. Newman’s definition of reconciliation.
Even if we didn’t agree about the causes of the Civil War or about the inextricable relationship between that flag and the ugliness that occurred in South Carolina during the civil rights era, South Carolinians, touched by the awe-inspiring forgiveness of the relatives of the Emanuel nine, rose up and said: If the flag causes such pain to my brothers and sisters in Christ, then I don’t want it on my State House grounds.
At his death, Mr. Rainey was working to create a program in South Carolina modeled on the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi, which helps communities work through reconciliation projects. The institute guides participants through relationship and trust-building exercises, after which they design and carry out community-service projects. The two-year process culminates with participants developing a community equity plan that recognizes the policies that have created inequity and commits to transforming them.
The Winter Institute is featured prominently in the documentary, as is its namesake, a former governor of Mississippi, and that’s extremely helpful. It’s worth watching the documentary just to see that section, because it helps flesh out how one could go about the whole process of reconciliation.
Frankly, I wish the film spent less time reliving the civil rights era and more time making the case for coming together regardless of race, coming to understand each other, so that we can then come face to face with our past and move forward together. I wish it felt a bit less like a tent revival for South Carolina’s liberal elites. I wish it had tried harder to include Republican and other conservative voices, because there are several who could have spoken to the people who are not already convinced of the need for this.
I think of GOP Sen. Tom Davis, who spoke eloquently during the Confederate flag debate about how he had never recognized the pain the flag causes black people until he heard his fellow senator, Darrell Jackson, talk about that. That is to say: It was the relationship that came first, then the history lesson, then the reconciliation. I think of Gov. Nikki Haley, whose own transformation on the flag was astounding, and who framed all of her work on that issue in terms of “healing” our state.
But the documentary was nearly 18 months in the making and nearing release when the massacre occurred, and I know how difficult it can be to go back to the drawing board when you’re so near the end of a major project. If Mr. Rainey’s vision of South Carolina’s own reconciliation institute reaches fruition — and I’m told work is continuing in the background — there will be time to correct those mistakes.
That will be accomplished by working intensely to make sure that any community reconciliation projects include not just those who already were clamoring for more conversations about race long before they ever heard of John Rainey, but also those from the other side of the political spectrum — people who might not be sure that there’s anything to apologize for, but who are willing to get to know members of their communities who are not like themselves.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.