In 1976 I accepted an offer to teach at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War (also known as "The War of Northern Aggression") began and was still a symbol of Southern pride. The Confederate battle flag had been placed on the South Carolina State Capitol dome by an all-white legislature in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, purportedly to commemorate the Civil War centennial. It remained there despite many protests.
Two slight racial improvements occurred in 2000. South Carolina made Martin Luther King's birthday an official state holiday, the last state to do so. (At the same time, the state also made Confederate Memorial Day an official state holiday.) Also, the state General Assembly agreed to move the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol dome to the Statehouse grounds.
This flag "compromise" continued to ignite protests. The state NAACP called for a tourism boycott of South Carolina until the flag was removed from Capitol grounds. To give you an idea of the negative public response to the boycott, state Senator Arthur Ravenel, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the NAACP the "National Association For Retarded People." He later apologized--to the mentally handicapped for comparing them to the NAACP. I had long been a silent supporter of the NAACP, but around this time my wife Sharon and I felt compelled to join the organization and add our voices to the protests.
Dot Scott, President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP for many years, has remained steadfast and outspoken despite the abuse she often received over the tourism boycott. She has also persistently raised other uncomfortable issues in our community, including alleged police discrimination against black citizens, inferior education in de facto segregated public schools, and bias in employment and housing
Dot Scott is a deeply committed Christian and I am an atheist, but we have more in common than sets us apart. She is as much in favor of separation of church and state as I am, and she respects the work of our local secular humanist organization. Dot supported me in 2003 after a disturbing incident at a Charleston City Council meeting at which I had been invited to give an invocation. As I approached the podium, half the council members walked out because I'm an atheist. When news of the walkout appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier, Dot wrote this letter to the editor:
"I read with disbelief the actions of our councilmen who walked out of an official meeting during the invocation by Herb Silverman simply because of his religious views. It is most difficult for me, a Christian African-American female, who has probably experienced every kind of prejudice and intolerance imaginable, to understand an act that was not only disrespectful, but also unquestionably rude by folks elected to represent all of the citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, religion or sexual orientation. It is most regrettable that during a time when the fight is so fierce to have all citizens' rights protected and respected, some of us would neglect to do the same for others. When any elected official demonstrates such lack of tolerance, especially while performing his official duties, those of us of conscience must speak out and voice our outrage."
A few years later, Dot Scott was a dinner guest at my home. She told a shocking story about a fund for families of nine Charleston firefighters who had recently died in a furniture store fire in 2007. Some wanted to contribute to the fund, but only if they could earmark donations to the white firefighters. Dot said when bad things happened in South Carolina people would console themselves with, "Thank you, Mississippi," but added that South Carolina is sometimes worse. I responded, "Dot, I've lived here long enough to know the real expression, so please feel free to say it correctly." She thanked me for not objecting to the phrase "Thank God for Mississippi," and I thanked her for recognizing that not all people are religious.
Though Dot Scott and the NAACP helped keep the Confederate flag protest alive for years, the turning point came this past June after a Confederate flag-promoting racist killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church. Gov. Nikki Haley, in her fifth year as governor, then announced her belated conclusion that it was time for the flag to come down. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Jenny Horne made an emotional appeal in the state House of Representatives to remove the flag. When the flag finally came down a few days later, neither Dot Scott nor other local NAACP leaders were invited to participate in any of the public ceremonies.
Republicans Haley and Horne were praised for their shift in positions, and said to be suddenly qualified for higher office--Vice President and Congress, respectively. While I appreciate the recent change of heart by Haley, Horne, and other legislators, clearly they did the right thing only when they realized it was politically safe to do so. Real courage, the Dot Scott kind, is demonstrated when something is difficult and unpopular.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has been trying for several years to raise funds to build an African-American Museum in the city. It should have been built decades ago. The history of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern racism is a powerful, often unacknowledged undercurrent in today¹s South Carolina. Sharon and I recently decided to do two positive things: give a sizeable gift to the African American Museum project, and do it in honor of Dot Scott to show our appreciation for her years of courageous advocacy.
After the killings at Mother Emanuel Church, the black and white communities of Charleston jointly reacted in horror and compassionate unity. I'm hoping others will now feel inspired to support the proposed African American Museum. Some people promote giving to a good cause until it hurts. For Sharon and me, we gave until it felt good.