When the Confederate flag was finally removed from Statehouse grounds in South Carolina during the summer of 2015, only after the massacre of nine Black parishioners at a historically Black church in Charleston forced the change, it was anticlimactic. My wife, two kids and I stood in a crowd among hundreds of others. We arrived just in time to see it furled. A couple of people walked to the flagpole and took it down. What had been vexing Black people for more than a half-century had been undone in a few seconds. We sent up a quick cheer, clapped. Then we hopped in our car, turned on a podcast and headed to our kids’ track meet. Though we had just witnessed the culmination of a decadeslong fight, it didn’t feel historic. It felt more like a reminder that the flag should have never flown there than a cause for great celebration.
Just five years later, South Carolina could soon become the first state in U.S. history to have two Black men serve simultaneously in the U.S. Senate. While Senator Lindsey Graham currently has a 6-point lead over his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison according to the most recent major poll, at times throughout the race, polls have shown the two in a dead heat. It would still be unlikely for Harrison to beat out a three-term senator who has raised $80 million, but if it happens, Harrison’s victory would be an unexpected, welcome achievement for many in the state—especially because he would be joining another Black senator in the state, Tim Scott. Harrison has told voters that his election would “close the book on the Old South and write a brand-new book called ‘The New South.’”
“Harrison’s election would certainly disprove the long-held theory that white voters are comfortable voting for one person of color to represent them but would not be comfortable with an all-minority delegation,” said Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston professor of political science. “In order for Harrison to win such a solidly red state, a number of Republicans would have to cross party lines and vote for a Democrat. The fact that white Republicans would vote for a Black Democratic candidate over a white Republican surely is a promising sign that times have changed.”
But if it happens, there’s a lot of reason to be wary about how this sign of progress will be used to gloss over the state’s ugly racial past—and present. In South Carolina, there has long been a constant push-pull, among the public and elites, between those trying to hold on to an ugly racist history and those who rush through symbolic markers of progress to declare all of those racial tensions firmly a thing of the past. As a Black South Carolinian, I am excited about a Senate delegation of two Black men, but I also worry it will give some people the opportunity to stop talking about racial barriers that still exist in the state. Worse, it might even trigger a racist backlash; after all, we saw what happened nationally after the United States elected Barack Obama. I worry because I see this happen all the time in my state—and I see South Carolina go one step forward, then two steps backward on racial progress as a result.
Take March 29, 2001.
On that day, as rain sometimes poured and sometimes drizzled, a contingent of dignitaries stood inside the South Carolina Statehouse before walking outside when the weather cleared a bit to be among the first to see the unveiling of a $1 million African-American monument. Democratic Governor Jim Hodges talked about God and evoked the image of Nelson Mandela and a long list of state greats in an address.
The monument was the culmination of an only-in-South Carolina compromise in 1999 and 2000, negotiated by the General Assembly and presented largely in response to Black people agitating for the Confederate flag’s removal and the NAACP’s pledge to enforce a boycott of the state until it was gone. That’s why the African-American monument was built. That’s when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was finally recognized as an official state holiday. In exchange for those concessions, the Confederate flag was taken down from above the Statehouse but moved to a Confederate soldiers’ monument on Statehouse grounds, where it flew until a few weeks after Dylann Roof’s massacre some 14 years later. That compromise also led to Confederate Memorial Day becoming an officially recognized holiday and the passage of a law that would require a supermajority to remove or destroy Confederate memorials in the state.
The NAACP called the compromise a travesty. So did most of the state’s Black elected officials. No matter, it was considered progress and anyone who considered it anything less was pushed aside.
The monument that was unveiled that day is 25 feet long and about two stories high. Scenes from the Jim Crow era were etched into the sculpture. Allusions to the 14th and 15th Amendments, the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling and Black sharecroppers and an astronaut and graduates and men and women with briefcases and musical instruments helped round out its message, that of the 400-year journey of Black people from Africa, from chains to perfecters of democracy. The monument included stones from four places in Africa: the Congo, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Enslaved Black people were shipped from those countries to Charleston from the late 1600s to early 1800s and sold to enslavers in various parts of the state.
It was a gesture of progress, but there was also something hollow about the moment, and the remarks carefully skirted the other people who were honored on the grounds of the Statehouse. Sculptor Ed Dwight was careful to not depict specific people in the monument. South Carolina could not have handled a monument on Statehouse grounds that celebrated a man like Denmark Vesey, a former South Carolina slave and early member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church—where Roof committed the massacre that sparked the removal of the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds—who almost pulled off one of the largest slave revolts in history. That would have been too radical, too divisive.
But Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a former South Carolina governor who bragged about lynching Black people, has never been too divisive to be celebrated on Statehouse grounds. That’s why visitors are greeted there with a massive statue of him. Staunch segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, Confederate Generals Wade Hampton, Robert E. Lee and J. Marion Sims, the man known as the founder of modern gynecology who experimented on Black women by performing surgeries on them without giving them anesthesia, have also been honored there with statues and plaques. Nor was it considered too divisive to keep the Confederate flag flying above the Statehouse for decades as a rebuke to the advancement of civil rights for Black people.
To many of the white people I spoke with that day, the unveiling of the African-American monument was a symbol of progress at the center of the state’s political power. They didn’t mention anything about the white men whose memories were still honored on more prominent space at the Statehouse—a reminder that a firm racial hierarchy in the state remains unexamined, mostly intact and a barrier to the kind of progress that the monument was celebrating.
It’s akin to the way the country as a whole has long revered the founders as agents of freedom and liberty, while glossing over their prominent roles in the enslavement of Black people and the racism and white supremacy that has haunted us ever since as a result. It’s a kind of racial blindness. While the African-American monument was well done and an important corrective, in too many white minds in the state, it became a kind of get-out-of-racism free card.
Those kinds of “compromises” illustrate what Nikky Finney, the John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair in creative writing and Southern studies at the University of South Carolina, calls her “abacus theory.” “They say, ‘OK, OK’ after 400 years. ‘Alright, alright, we’ll give you one thing to keep you quiet, but every time we give you one thing we will rebalance this S.C. thing back out by insisting on one more something for our side,’” she told me this week. “We’ll take down the Confederate flag if you give us [funding] for a new Confederate museum to protect it forever.’ That’s not progress. It may be how politics in South Carolina works, but it’s not progress.”
She was there on that March day in 2001 and read one of her poems. The monument represented but 12 chapters of a million-chapter book, she said to the crowd, while reminding them about Black men hanging from trees like kudzu, the fight of Joe Frazier and brilliance of the Black astronaut Ronald McNair.
Perhaps most anxiety-inducing for me as I consider the possibility of two Black senators is another aspect of the state’s past: any racial progress here comes with a cost that is almost always borne by Black people. The end of slavery, for instance, led to a Reconstruction that was quickly replaced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings.
Two Black senators, one elected without the support of the Black vote, one who could be elected with it, would be touted even by the white people who are trying to ensure it doesn’t become a reality. They will use it as a shield against charges of racism, making the kind of racism they practice just that much more potent. We’ll celebrate if it happens, but we won’t be letting our guards down.