Glenn F. McConnell, president of the College of Charleston, leads an academic community in mourning after a massacre at a nearby black church in his native city.
Among the nine slain in the shootings Wednesday at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a librarian who for many years worked part-time for the public liberal arts college. “Cynthia Hurd was a beloved and valued member of our College family,” McConnell wrote the next day. He pledged that the community would “let the world see how we can and will come together and support one another in our most difficult times. That is the true measure of the people of Charleston. That is our most powerful witness in the face of evil.”
McConnell also is known in South Carolina and beyond as a staunch defender of public display of the Confederate battle flag — a symbol, he says, of the state’s cultural heritage.
Before he took office at the college last year, McConnell was the state’s lieutenant governor. Before that, he was a longtime Republican state senator who in the 1990s strongly supported keeping the rebel flag flying over the capitol dome in Columbia. The state put it in that place of honor in 1962, as the civil rights movement was building a century after the Civil War. One news account quoted McConnell in 1996 as saying that to take the flag down would be a step toward “cultural genocide.”
When the political tide turned in 2000, McConnell helped broker legislation to remove the battle flag from the dome but ensure that it would fly on the statehouse grounds on a 30-foot pole at a Confederate memorial. “Many of us who love the flag would have preferred it stayed on the dome,” McConnell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that year. “But there would have been a tidal wave of resentment if it had stayed up. . . . At the same time, the state has a responsibility to remember the lives of those who gave their lives at the call of the state.”
The church massacre could reopen South Carolina’s flag debate.
On Thursday, authorities arrested Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old, in connection with the shootings. The gunman reportedly made racial comments when he opened fire inside the church. Amid these developments, in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime, many commentators said it was time to stop flying on the statehouse grounds a flag widely viewed as a symbol associated with slavery and racial oppression.
The Post asked a college spokesman Saturday if McConnell would answer questions about the college community’s response to the shootings and the flag issue. Mike Robertson, senior director of media relations, said McConnell declined to comment.
McConnell has many supporters in South Carolina, according to a veteran Democratic lawmaker, including legislators from both sides of the aisle. State Sen. Darrell Jackson Sr. (D), an African American who is also a church pastor, served in the chamber with McConnell and with the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney. A Democrat from Ridgeland who represented Charleston and other counties, Pinckney was pastor of Emanuel AME and was among the nine slain Wednesday night. McConnell praised Pinckney in a statement as “a remarkable man and a consistent voice of compassion and reason in the State House.”
Jackson said in a telephone interview Saturday that Pinckney “was a huge supporter” of McConnell’s presidency. “So was I. So were others.”
Southern politics, Jackson said, often produces seemingly odd alliances between black Democrats and white Republicans. “We know if we are going to get anything done with southern legislatures,” Jackson said, “we are going to have to work across the aisle with people who perhaps are on the total opposite side of the political spectrum.”
That happened, Jackson said, in 2000 when the legislature debated what to do about displays of the Confederate battle flag at the capitol.
Jackson was adamant that the flag had to go. McConnell was equally adamant that it belonged where it was.
Ultimately, Jackson said, he and McConnell came to an understanding: They would agree to disagree. Their compromise bill moved the flag but did not banish it from the grounds.
“What I learned was, there are some decent people who have a totally different view of that symbol,” Jackson said. “They never convinced me. But I understood a little bit more of perhaps why they felt that way. More importantly, I no longer saw them as the enemy.” Jackson also credited McConnell with helping to erect a monument to African Americans on the statehouse grounds.
After the state pays full honor to the victims of the massacre, Jackson said he wants at some point to revisit the flag question. “My hope is that one day that flag will be placed in its appropriate place, which is a museum,” he said.
McConnell, 67, who with his brother once operated a Confederate memorabilia store, has a deep interest in the Civil War. He has participated in costumed reenactments, according to news accounts, and was involved in efforts to recover and preserve a Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley, that had sunk in the waters outside Charleston.
His résumé is somewhat unusual for a college president. He served as student body president at Charleston before graduating in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina. But he had not held any higher education executive positions before he emerged in 2014 as a leading contender for the presidency of the college. Skeptics wondered at the time whether McConnell was right for the job. Inside Higher Ed reported last year that many students rallied against his selection, with one holding a sign that read: “This is 2014 NOT 1814.”
But trustees stuck by their choice.
Joe Kelly, an English professor, said he was initially worried about the public perception of McConnell’s views concerning the Old South. “I’ve actually in the last year become convinced he’s the right man for the job,” Kelly said. “He’s done all the right moves. He’s a compromiser.”
Jackson said McConnell has done “a fantastic job. I don’t think you will find an African American in the General Assembly who would say to you otherwise.” He said McConnell hired the school’s first African American head basketball coach and has taken other steps to promote diversity at the institution. He also said that McConnell’s political clout will help the school secure funding, no small issue for public higher education at a time of squeezed budgets. The college, founded in 1770, has about 10,000 undergraduate students. Its main Web page Saturday was dominated by this message: “#CharlestonStrong.”
(This item has been updated.)