Monday, February 9, 2015

Civil Rights Matters: South Carolina Edition

George Stinney
courtesy SC Dept of Archives
Several recent developments in the Palmetto State suggest that a truth and reconciliation movement, of sorts, is taking place there. My January, 2014 blog post, "Nothing Good," took note of a civil rights-era cold case involving George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black boy executed by the state after a show trial and the boy's coerced confession. In December, 2014, a South Carolina judge vacated the murder conviction of Stinney, the youngest person executed during the twentieth century, calling it a fundamental injustice. That change of heart took seventy years. Better late than never.

Friendship 9
courtesy of Friendship College
Just last month, the state of South Carolina vacated the misdemeanor convictions of civil rights-era protesters. Police officers arrested the "Friendship 9" in January, 1961, after they sat in a segregated lunch counter in Rock Hill, SC. The nine collegians refused to post bail, were convicted, and ended up serving sentences for trespass in local prison camps. The Friendship 9, pioneers in the use of the jail-no-bail tactic, won plaudits within the small circle of student activists; you can read about their contributions here.  However, within their own culturally conservative community, the young men encountered a public shaming campaign. The local power structure denied members of the 9 employment and housing. Clarence Graham, one of the Friendship 9, welcomed the court's action--fifty-four years after the students' protest--but said it would have meant more back in 1968. Read all about the court's action here.

Finally, an effort is underway in Greenwood, SC to replace a war memorial that designates fallen soldiers by race.  The town's mayor would like to replace the memorial--which indicates whether a solider was "colored" or "white"--with a commemorative plague that does not reference race. The mayor explained: "I think if history offends people, it needs to be rewritten if possible." He has raised money from private donors, mostly white, toward that
Greenwood, SC War Memorial
end.  However, a SC law enacted during the battle over the Confederate flag will likely undermine the effort; the law requires a super-majority vote by the state legislature before a public monument can be altered. Based on local reaction to the Greenwood mayor's effort--critics want him arrested for misconduct in office--I'm guessing there will be inadequate support in the state legislature to make that change. While the mayor's anti-racist impulses are praiseworthy, I oppose the attempt to remove the vestiges of segregation from the town's monuments. Public memory should preserve an accurate historical narrative--not a revisionist or "post-racial" one.  Read about this latest effort in SC here and see more photos of the memorials here.