Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




January 18 , 2008

It should come as a surprise to no-one—should it?—that the issue of race resurfaced in the Democratic primary campaign as soon as that campaign dropped down I-95 from the snows of New Hampshire to the sandhills and seashores of South Carolina. However it tries to escape or pretend otherwise, the Palmetto State continues to live in the long shadow of the slaverytime plantations.

I love South Carolina. I spent close to twenty years there, where three of my children were born. California is my native home and where I live, but Carolina is where my heart lies. Still, I have no pretenses about the state.

South Carolina was one of the gateways into America of the African slave trade and as late as the middle of the last century, and slavery and its aftermath dominated the state up to and through the civil rights and Black empowerment eras. Its rotten residue remains.

In the old citadel square in the center of Charleston, a statue of South Carolina’s most famous politician—John C. Calhoun—towers above the close-cropped grass where tourists lounge and local workers eat their lunches. Mr. Calhoun, once a Vice President of the United States, was the chief promoter of the “nullification” philosophy, in which it was reasoned that any individual state had the right to toss out federal law if that federal law clashed with the wishes of that state’s leaders. The law in question, in Mr. Calhoun’s day, was the right of individuals to “own” other people and keep them in bondage as slaves. The so-called Southern “fire-eaters” of the following generation used Mr. Calhoun’s nullification philosophy to justify the break with the union that created the Confederacy and sparked the Civil War, which began both with South Carolina’s withdrawal from the union as well as its firing on federal troops at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor. Southern segregationist leaders later used the Calhoun philosophy to justify the denial of civil rights to African-American citizens.

To this day, Mr. Calhoun’s statue glares across the Charleston landscape, looking to the sea that brought in both African captives and union gunboats. The finger of one of the statue’s hands pointing dramatically downwards. Of old times, African-American men sunning themselves on the park benches below used to joke that Calhoun’s last and everlasting message in that pointing gesture was a warning to his followers to “keep the niggers down.”

South Carolina’s second most famous politician was Ben Tillman—one-eyed, “Pitchfork Ben,” once a governor and later a United States Senator—who led the forces that drove African-Americans out of political power at the end of Reconstruction, using “fraud and violence,” by his own words. Countless African-American leaders and officeholders were assassinated by Tillman’s “red shirt” white terrorist militias during the 1870’s and 1880’s, homes burned, Black citizens driven back onto the plantations and into re-subjugation. Old-timers in Edgefield County, where Mr. Tillman lived, told me of his last days when he sat as a virtual crazy man on his porch, waving a cane at passersby with a withered hand, screaming out, “Keep the niggers off the polls! Keep the niggers off the polls!” Mr. Tillman reportedly died in fits of screaming, visited, the story goes, by demons and the ghosts of many thousands gone.

South Carolina’s third most famous politician—longtime United States Senator Strom Thurmond—was a boyhood pupil of Mr. Tillman’s, who often said that he learned his politics at the old man’s knee. Both were from Edgefield. A decade ago, I wrote of my impressions of that county:

“Edgefield is peach country and, on the surface, is beautiful. The orchard rows of sweet-flowered trees stretch on for mile after rolling mile. Along the main north-south highway that runs from Savannah to Charlotte stand clean, white-board houses and restored colonial mansions dotted here and there between acres of farmland and groves of green woods.

“Wave to folks, both white and black, and they will smile and wave back. Passing through in your car you think that this is where you might want to return when you retire. But stop and stay long enough, and you will catch the odor. It does not take long to recognize it.

“It is the smell of fear so old and ingrained that it taints the very earth. It is the smell of terror. It is the smell of death. Stay long enough and you will understand the real Edgefield County, sprawling along the Georgia border like some great sick beast sullen and brooding, uneasy, malevolent, the stench of its old segregated systems buzzing its blacktop highways like hot flies on the rotting veins of a dying regime, the clayed ground so dank and red it seems as if it was oozing up blood from the bodies of the murdered martyrs buried in its fields and creek banks. Black martyrs.

"’I don't even much go through there,’ I once was told by an older African-American woman who lived in neighboring Aiken County. ‘I just drives around it, always. It's bad things happened up in Edgefield. It's bad things still happening.’

“One flees Edgefield County in deep fear, hoping you can leave the images behind you. But you cannot. Ghosts first emerge from their own graveyard, but they do not remain there. Like some deadly, unidentified disease, the Edgefield Terror has slowly spread itself north and west, infecting the entire country.”

Strom Thurmond, of course, is the epitome of America’s tortured tanglings in the race thickets. His political career revolved around the embrace of segregation and white rights. Once, as a South Carolina circuit court judge in the 1930’s, he allowed a white mob to take an African-American defendant from his courthouse and lynch him on the town square. In those days, lynch mobs didn’t even bother to hide their identities but Mr. Thurmond, later one of those “law and order” advocates, never pursued charges against the lynch mob who murdered a man on the public commons. In 1948, Mr. Thurmond later broke briefly with the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights, running for President as a Dixiecrat against Harry Truman. He later defected for good from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party over the same issue, his belief that the party was promoting rights for African-Americans that we, ourselves, for the most part, weren’t even interested in exercising.

But as we later discovered, Thurmond’s own relations with African-Americans was as tangled as America’s. He had several African-American half-brothers—children of his father—who lived for many years in Aiken, across the county line from Edgefield. Mr. Thurmond himself was the father of a child by an African-American woman. Privately, Mr. Thurmond acknowledged Essie Mae Washington as his daughter, and helped get through college at South Carolina State, where he sometimes visited her at the African-American home where she boarded. And Thurmond was a great friend of Black colleges—what we now call “historically Black colleges”—helping to funnel state and federal money to them.

There is a high school in Edgefield named after him—Strom Thurmond High—a largely African-American school in the post-segregation days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and in those years he used to go to every graduation and hand out the diplomas, the long lines predominant with Black children filing past him in their graduation hats and robes, the bleachers filled with proud Black parents. It was an odd spectacle for those who were introduced to Mr. Thurmond as an enemy of civil rights, and only made sense when you began to understand that Mr. Thurmond, like South Carolina, like America, both loves and hates the African-Americans amongst us, sometimes simultaneously, is both repelled by and attracted to African-Americans, doing best to both get away from us and get close to us, is both proud of African-Americans and its treatment of us and ashamed of African-Americans and its treatment of us, and, most importantly, is bound to us, both from the beginning, and forever.

And given South Carolina’s long history of white men impregnating African-American women—both before and after the end of slavery—and then suffering alternating bouts of shame, denial, and confusion in the face of the offspring of those “events,” it is totally unsurprising that it is this state where Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential ambitions foundered and fell after the forces of George W. Bush whispered the rumor that Mr. McCain was the father of a Black child.

And so, shortly before the New Hampshire primary but as South Carolina loomed—with its long racial history and its large contingent of Black Democratic voters—it is equally not surprising that Senator Hillary Clinton also succumbed to Carolina’s fever, trying to disparage comparisons of Senator Barack Obama’s speaking style to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by implying—carelessly, foolishly, stupidly—that President Lyndon Johnson was actually the determinant of the civil rights victories of the 1960’s, not the Reverend King and his followers.

Ms. Clinton later tried to explain that she hadn’t meant to denigrate Mr. King, but the damage was done, and there followed a round of race-based fighting between the Clinton and Obama camps that was nasty, brutish and, thankfully, short.

Fueled and egged on by the national media and Republicans on the sidelines, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama appeared be in a downward death spiral, destined to savage themselves with race-bloodied knives until both campaigns crashed into the swamp, the “winner” unable to recover for the November election. What is remarkable about the events of the past two weeks is that, instead, the two United States Senators did manage to pull themselves out, almost apologetically, both seemingly embarrassed by the quick mess they had made of things. That they did is a credit both to them and to whoever pulled their respective coattails and advised them to “stop this, at once, or you will bring both yourselves, the Democratic Party, and perhaps the country down.”

But going into South Carolina will do that. Like America’s long experience with slavery and the issue of race, South Carolina—a state of unsurpassing beauty and ugliness—tends to bring out both the worst and the best in you.

When we will break completely and forever away from the ghost of America’s racial past? Like the South Carolina folks say, my eyes don’t see that long. But the last couple of weeks in the Democratic primary has demonstrated, once more, how close to the surface the body lies.

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