For more than 35 years, a Confederate flag has waved from atop the burnished dome of the statehouse here, in an honored spot directly under the American and state flags.
If the NAACP prevails, the Rebel battle flag will soon come down forever, to be consigned to the place NAACP leaders say it belongs--in a museum of history. For the first time, the civil rights group is calling for a national boycott of vacation spots in this tourism-dependent state, where nearly a third of the residents are black, until the flag is removed. The NAACP hopes to succeed with economic muscle where years of negotiations and threats have failed.
"It is a symbol of oppression and slavery, and it represents probably the biggest symbol of the abuse of African American people at the hands of the majority in this state," said Nelson Rivers III, a Charleston native who is director of national field operations for the NAACP. "What it says in the modern day is, 'We've told you for years it offends us, yet you continue to fly it, and that shows you hold us in disregard and much disdain.' "
NAACP leaders are comparing the boycott to the economic sanctions of the 1980s that helped end apartheid in South Africa and to the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., that effectively launched the civil rights movement. Already, they are reaping results as predominantly black groups decide to take their annual conventions and other meetings elsewhere.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was to have begun its convention in Charleston July 25 with 1,500 participants, abruptly canceled its plans, costing the seaside city an estimated several hundred thousand dollars. The National Urban League and the African Methodist Episcopal Churches also are canceling upcoming conventions in the state, and other groups, including the United Negro College Fund, are considering pulling out.
Tourism has become South Carolina's leading industry, bringing in 28.5 million visitors a year and $14.5 billion, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. African Americans account for 2.1 million visitors from out of state and spend an estimated $280 million a year.
Beyond its possible economic impact, however, the controversy shows just how vivid the Civil War--often referred to here as the War of Northern Aggression--remains in the South, almost as if it occurred yesterday. White South Carolinians continue to pride themselves on their leading role: The first shots of the conflict were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.
Supporters of the flag's display include many state legislators who have the final say on whether it goes or stays. They seem determined not to be swayed by bad publicity, a boycott or any other pressures, and they resent charges that the flag is a divisive, even racist, emblem. They say it is meant to honor the state's heritage and to remember the 20,000 South Carolina casualties of the war.
"Those of us in the historical movement are offended by the disrespectful rhetoric," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) about the flag's foes. "We are offended by their attempt to give it to the Ku Klux Klan, and their stereotyping of white Southerners. We call it hatism. It is a campaign against Southern historical culture."
No other state still flies the Confederate battle flag--the familiar blue X with white stars against a red background--over its capitol, though Georgia and Mississippi have incorporated the banner into their state flags. Just this week, a state Supreme Court justice in Mississippi began hearing a challenge to the Mississippi flag brought by the state NAACP.
In 1993, an Alabama judge ruled that the Confederate flag that had flown over the Capitol in Montgomery since the mid-1950s--just after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in public schools--was in violation of state law. Rather than appeal the ruling, then-Gov. Jim Folsom (D) transferred the flag to a Confederate monument on statehouse grounds.
South Carolina's Confederate flag was hoisted over the Capitol dome in 1962. Defenders said it was placed there in honor of the Civil War centennial, but detractors say it too was unfurled, in part, in defiance of court-ordered desegregation.
In recent years, there have been several attempts to reach a compromise. The latest, in 1995, came when the state Senate voted to move the flag to a nearby Confederate memorial and to erect a monument honoring the contributions of black South Carolinians, but the bill died in the House. The proposal for a black history monument was revived, however, and ground will be broken this fall, with McConnell serving as chairman of the effort.
At least two South Carolina governors have found the flag issue a political headache they would just as soon live without. The previous governor, David Beasley (R), vowed during his 1994 campaign to defend the flag's presence, then changed his mind after he won office, citing a series of burnings of black churches in the state.
Gov. Jim Hodges (D), who defeated Beasley last fall, voted twice to remove the flag during his previous career as a state representative. This week, he met with Rivers and other NAACP leaders and agreed to canvass legislators on where they stand, but he reminded them he has no power to relocate the flag.
"I think the boycott would tend to divide us more than bring us together," he said at a news conference. "I have a concern that it will impact South Carolinians, particularly African American South Carolinians. I have a great concern about that."
But critics of the Confederate flag say the flag itself already has taken care of that.
"The emblem that flies over the state Capitol should signify the state's unity, something all the state's people should be able to rally around," said Glen Broach, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. "There are good historical reasons for a third of the state's population not to want to rally around it, and, indeed, to be offended by it."
Yet a spot check of a dozen black residents of the state capital revealed mixed feelings about the flag.
"I'm not racial and I get along with a lot of people, no matter what color," said Alfreda Ritter, 36, a housekeeper. "I see it as part of history. I don't think people in South Carolina care. It doesn't bother me."
But others see it in a more negative light.
"I think it's racist," said Otis Robert, 29, a cook. "I just think it's for the white people; that's the way I feel about it. It's not for anybody else."
What happens next is unclear. The state legislature does not meet again until January. McConnell predicts that the boycott "will have the weight of a feather in a whirlwind." He says the flag will "never" come down.
But Rivers of the NAACP is not so sure. "Never's a relative thing," he said. "In South Carolina, they'd better be careful. They said we would never have school desegregation. They said African Americans would never go to Clemson [University]. They said the South would never lose the Civil War."