Reconsider vital facts on flag ‘compromise’

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Post and Courier’s Monday Commentary page included S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse’s call for the NAACP to immediately end the organization’s "boycott" to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. Beyond the fact that only the members of any organization can set policy for that organization, Mr. Limehouse’s column also deserves a longer response. As First Vice-President of the State NAACP during the early years of the sanctions, I can make that response.

I agree with Mr. Limehouse’s assertion that we must all work together to move South Carolina forward. That forward movement, however, should include input from a representative cross-section of South Carolinians that acknowledges and respects divergent views on the placement of the flag and on the "compromise" enacted by our Legislature nine years ago.

I also commend Mr. Limehouse for stating a long-denied truth. When the sanctions were enacted, many of his legislative colleagues said that they had no real economic effect. When the "compromise" was reached, those same voices said that the issue was settled and that the sanctions would become irrelevant. Mr. Limehouse was honest enough to note that nine years later, the sanctions have impacted and still impact economic development and tourism in our state.

Having noted my points of agreement with and commendation for Mr. Limehouse, let me make a few clarifications to his account of the events leading to the "compromise." Mr. Limehouse asserts that the "compromise" was the result of a diverse and bipartisan group of business, social, political and religious leaders suddenly deciding to do the right thing in the late 1990s after the flag had flown over the Statehouse for 30 years, but he omits a few facts.

The first is that African-American legislators — including those named in his column — began calling for removal of the flag in the mid-1970s to no avail. The second is that S.C. Attorney General Travis Medlock issued a 1993 opinion that the flag, which then flew over the Statehouse by continuing resolution, did not fly by force of law. The third is that when a diverse group of 200 interfaith clergy encircled the Legislature’s temporary meeting place in 1997 to pray for a positive and inclusive resolution, the Legislature reacted during that prayer by enacting legislation to see that the flag flew by force of law and could only be relocated by a "super majority." The fourth is that the diverse group noted did not earnestly seek a "compromise" until it became evident in 1999 that the NAACP would enact economic sanctions and did not reach a compromise until those sanctions were enacted. Progress in South Carolina has always come not by sudden noble intent, but as a reaction to effective and ongoing pressure.

It should also be noted that the NAACP never agreed to or endorsed the eventual "compromise." We stayed away from the negotiating table because one of Mr. Limehouse’s legislative colleagues bluntly said that he would not support any solution endorsed by the NAACP. The African-American legislators mentioned in his column kept us posted on progress and assured us as late as midnight before the day when the issue was to be debated that they would settle for nothing less than the removal of the flag from the Statehouse grounds. On the following day, however, they called the State NAACP officers present for the debate into the Senate cloakroom at lunchtime and told us that they’d agreed to the "compromise."

I played a role in drafting the sanctions, which call for the removal of the flag from the Statehouse dome, legislative chambers and other "places of sovereignty" on the Statehouse grounds. Since the front of a public building — be it the Statehouse, a Post Office or a school — is usually reserved for the flags of existing sovereign governmental entities, we found that the flag is still flying in a position of sovereignty and made the decision to continue the sanctions.

I share Mr. Limehouse’s love for our state, concern for our state’s economic well-being and love for my Southern heritage, although I suspect that my heritage — which is not the same as our shared objective history — does not mirror his heritage. I welcome the opportunity for people of good will to find points of mutual agreement that will lead to a real solution on the placement of a historical reminder of a defunct nation.

That begins, however, with mutual respect. Accusing South Carolinians who are members of the NAACP, who also love our state and who are working for jobs and economic progress, of being what Mr. Limehouse characterizes as a "self-serving, vocal minority" with a personal "agenda" that "undermines efforts" for progress builds not a constructive bridge, but a counterproductive wall.

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