How the tyranny of the petty minded can infect a society

Coleman_Livingston_Blease

Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.

Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.

In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.

The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.

The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.

“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.

Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.

“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”

The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task. Continue reading

Amid ignorance, compassion and humanity shine through

dps

Because we in South Carolina haven’t had enough strife over the past month, what with the racially motivated killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17 and the ensuing polarizing debate about removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, a pair of dubious groups from out of state descended upon our capital over the weekend to try to add fuel to the fire.

The North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at the Statehouse this past Saturday, as did the Florida-based Black Educators for Justice, described as a subset of the “New Black Panther Party.”

While there weren’t more than a few dozen members from either group on hand to spread their bizarre brand of fanaticism, there were as many as 2,000 individuals who protested the interlopers.

Yet, among the foolishness of two groups who seemed hell-bent on stirring up odious emotions for the sake of publicity was at least one inspiring moment.

In  a scene caught by a civilian photographer, a black police officer came to the aid of an older white man, overcome by heat, who was garbed in a Nazi t-shirt during Saturday’s activities.

In the above photo, provided to the Associated Press by Rob Godfrey, the former spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, S.C. Department of Public Safety Chief Leroy Smith helps an unidentified man wearing National Socialist Movement attire up the stairs of the South Carolina statehouse.

The image showed “who we are in South Carolina,” Smith told the Charleston Post and Courier.

One never knows what’s in the heart of individuals such as the character who was assisted by Smith, but it can only be hoped that the latter’s actions might force the former to at least reconsider his long-held positions on matters such as race. Stranger things have happened.

Beware of those who divide the masses for fun and profit

churches

One sometimes wonders whether certain elements of society would opt to plunge mankind into the Apocalypse rather than have it experience peace and goodwill, as long as the former enabled them to bolster their bottom line by another handful of shekels.

Case in point: media coverage of several church fires in the South over the past few days seems determined to either outright assert or strongly infer white racists are targeting black houses of worship following the dreadful killings on June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

A few recent headlines:

Seventh Black Church Burns In South Since Charleston Church Shooting” – CBS News.

Feds Investigate String of Fires at Black Churches in South” – Time magazine.

Seventh Black Church Goes Up in Flames Following Charleston Massacre” – People magazine.

Fires at Black Churches in the South Raise Hate-Crime Fears” – NBC News.

After Charleston, Black Churches Targeted By Arsonists Across The South” – Think Progress.

This, when the story often can’t even back up the rhetoric.

In the first example above, CBS News pointed out in its lead paragraph that the most recent church fire was not arson, despite a headline that might lead some to believe malicious intent was involved.

“A federal law enforcement source says a fire that destroyed a black church in South Carolina was not the work of an arsonist,” the CBS report begins, referring to a fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, SC, about an hour north of Charleston.

While the story adds that the fire is still under investigation, it states that the fire was not intentionally set and was not arson.

Continue reading

Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

Church

This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery. Continue reading

Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

Continue reading

Society not culpable for actions of those who commit heinous acts

Police tape is seen outside the Emanuel AME Church, after a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church the night before  in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18, 2015. Police captured a white suspect in a mass killing at one of the oldest black churches in the United States, the latest gun massacre to leave the country reeling. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As a South Carolinian, the murder Wednesday night of nine black men and women at a historic Charleston church by a white man, an attack that appears to have had strong racial motivations, has been, to say the least, extremely disheartening.

My Facebook feed has been filled with a great deal of anguish among friends about this senseless act. As a former journalist, many of those I’m connected to see things from a different political perspective. I lean toward a libertarian stand, partly because I don’t have much faith in political parties and partly because I like to be left alone. Journalists, certainly in the US, tend to be of a more liberal bent, on the whole.

That said, I recognize the need for law and order, and the need for society to function in a cohesive manner. I also believe to some degree we are all our brother’s keepers; I just don’t believe that fact needs to be codified.

That said, Facebook friends are wringing their hands about the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, with many coming to the conclusion that we are all responsible.

One linked to a column by an Atlanta Constitution editor that ran after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963, killing four black girls. In that column, Gene Patterson said all Southerners were responsible by having created a climate for child-killing, thereby encouraging racists who didn’t know better.

Given what went on in the Deep South during Segregation, that may well have been true.

Late yesterday, a former co-worker said we today are guilty of the same:

“A flag that is a racist symbol, an offensive joke, an ugly fraternity chant, the N-word, disrespect for a president, black face paint at a party, and even referring to young, black males as “thugs” or “animals” when they mess up – standing by and accepting these things without taking a stand is wrong. We all share in the guilt. We just don’t know who is listening and who is close enough to the edge to decide that slaughtering black men and women in a church is a noble thing to do.”

I took time this morning to disagree, pointing my remarks toward my acquaintance:

I’m going to voice a contrarian view in that I disagree with the contention that we’re all responsible for this heinous act. The folks that I know, and I pretty sure the ones you know, don’t engage in use of the N-word, ugly fraternity chants or put on black face at parties. Goodness knows there’s plenty of political vitriol, no matter which party holds the Oval Office, but I also don’t think your friends or mine disrespect the current occupant simply because of his race. I certainly hope mine don’t. Thuggery and animalistic behavior, sadly, can be found among all races, as anyone who has lived in the northeast and, like myself, been attacked by drunken white louts for no reason. Should we not use the term at all for fear someone somewhere may attach it to a specific group of people? An example of where the word “thug” would apply is among those who use the Confederate flag, which has different meanings to different people, to intimidate. No doubt this individual didn’t come to be the person he is on his own; no one lives in a vacuum. But my parents didn’t rear me to be anything like this individual and I’m not bringing up my children in an atmosphere that sees intolerance, bigotry and prejudice as acceptable. Blaming these actions on society as a whole waters down this individual’s culpability. He committed these deviant actions for his own reasons. We’re not responsible for his actions; all we can do is pray for those affected and do our best to make the world a better place so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

Sometimes we need to recognize that a bad apple is just that – a bad apple. The South of 2015 is very different from the South of 1963. Imperfect? Oh, yes. At least today people of good will are no longer afraid to stand up and made their voices heard.

(Top: Historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine individuals were killed and three wounded Wednesday night.)

Why one 19th century SC paper urged readers to vote for blacks

Orangeburg County Courthouse

There is no doubt that judging the past by present standards is often poor practice with regard to history.

While many actions of the past were wrong then and remain wrong today, others that we consider egregious today weren’t so clear cut when they occurred.

And sometimes there are cases where historical figures do, more or less, the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

As the mid-term election of 1886 rolled around, Reconstruction in South Carolina had been over for a full decade. However, Democrats, who had “redeemed” the state from Radical Republicans 10 years earlier, weren’t taking any chances. Elections were still spirited affairs, rather than the perfunctory events that they would later become once Democrats had fully consolidated their hold on power in the state.

In 1886, South Carolina had one black congressman, Civil War hero Robert Smalls, and would send two more to Washington before the end of the century. All were Republicans.

While anti-black sentiment among whites in the state had not yet hardened into what it would become under Gov. Ben Tillman’s racially divisive policy, ex-slaves and their descendants were undoubtedly considered second class citizens by both white elites and non-elites.

Still, as the 1886 election neared, at least one South Carolina newspaper urged voters to put prejudice aside and vote a straight-Democrat ticket, even though the ballot contained two black candidates.

The Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote in a Sept. 30, 1886, editorial that democrats needed to place party first:

We hear a great many men say that they will not vote for a negro for office if put on the Democratic ticket. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of the action of the convention in deciding to put two negros on the ticket, we emphatically say that it is the duty of the Democrats of the County to vote for the entire ticket as nominated by the primary, negro and all. The very life of the party itself depends upon its purity and a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, and a rigid and uncompromising discipline. One who obeys the party mandates, and supports the nominated ticket, regardless of his personal objections or animosities for those who compose it, deserve party confidence and can alone be trusted to keep up and preserve the organization. When the action of the party convention is rebelled against, and the ticket scratched or openly opposed, it will not be long before the party itself will go to pieces. Our advice to all Democrats is to vote the ticket straight, whether the ticket as a whole suits their views or not. In this way alone can the unity and ascendancy of the Democratic party be maintained.

The piece was signed by J.L. Sims, editor and owner of the publication.

It should be noted that 19th century American newspapers were often mouthpieces for one political party or the other. That the Times and Democrat urged its readers to vote a straight Democrat ticket likely wasn’t unusual.

Any credit Sims might have gotten for urging readers to vote for the two blacks on the Democratic ballot was greatly diminished by his second sentence, in which he essentially calls into question the S.C. Democratic Convention’s decision to include two African-American candidates on the ticket.

It’s unclear who the two candidates in question were or how they fared in the Nov. 2, 1886, election.

What is clear from South Carolina history is that as time went on and segregation became entrenched in all aspects of life, there would be little reason for editors such as Sims to urge voters to cast ballots for blacks on the Democratic ticket.

The powers that be made certain such episodes didn’t happen again.

(Top: Old postcard showing Orangeburg (SC) County Courthouse, built in 1875. It served the county until 1928.)