Martin Luther King's birthday last week was a good time for reflection and remembrance. One of his favorite places in the world was Penn Center on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County. The civil rights leader was fond of taking his lieutenants to the former Quaker school for a little R&R as they planned their historic campaign for social justice.
Last week's holiday was also a good time to take the racial temperature in South Carolina. While there has been little overt racism in the state in recent years, there is always potential violence bubbling just under the surface. It doesn't take much to bring it out.
It was with abundant irony that this little state with a Confederate flag on its Statehouse grounds, its generations of violent and blustery racism, and its dubious distinction of being the first to secede from the Union and the last to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday would become the center of the Republican universe for the two weeks around which we celebrate King's birthday.
The modern Republican Party — especially in the South — has never gotten completely comfortable with black people. Even as the GOP circus came to town, three of its leading presidential primary candidates were explaining or shrugging off racial gaffes they had recently made or that had recently come to light. And for the two weeks that they saturated the state with their TV ads and their presence, they played to overwhelmingly white audiences, audiences one suspects would have been rather hostile to the very idea of MLK Day. Indeed, during their numerous appearances in our state — individually and collectively — I heard only one passing reference to the birthday of one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.
We got another glimpse at this awkward relationship — and at the cozy relationship between state agencies and employees and the GOP — when Dr. Walter Edgar interviewed state Sen. John Courson on his weekly ETV Radio program the weekend before the primary. Dr. Edgar is the dean of South Carolina historians, the author of the most celebrated history of the state, and editor of The South Carolina Encyclopedia. He also cashes a state paycheck each month.
The subject of the interview was the rise of the Republican Party in South Carolina, from irrelevance 50 years ago to dominance today. And who better than Courson to tell the story? He is a 50-year GOP veteran, a three-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, and a 28-year member of the General Assembly.
For an hour Edgar quizzed Courson on the recent history of the state GOP, and for an hour Courson regaled him with personal memories and lessons in state political history. Among his recollections was the fact that he had been a Kennedy Democrat in 1960, but by 1964 he was a Goldwater Republican.
Why the switch? Courson didn't say and Edgar didn't ask. Edgar also neglected to point out that Courson was hardly the only person to switch parties in that critical four-year period. Strom Thurmond switched in the summer of 1964, as did a majority of white Southerners. In that year, the Palmetto State — like the rest of the South — voted for the GOP for the first time since Reconstruction, and the region has been overwhelmingly Republican ever since.
What could have caused such a sudden and seismic political shift? Edgar and Courson politely refused to bring up any unpleasantness, but history shows that during those critical four years the civil rights movement came into its own. It was embraced by Northern Democrats and a majority of the American people. Dr. King led his march to Washington and thrilled the nation with his transcendent words and presence. And in July 1964, a Democratic Congress passed and a Democratic president signed the Civil Rights Act, the most sweeping social reform since the end of slavery. White Southerners responded by leaving the Democratic Party and making the South a Republican stronghold.
That Dr. Edgar could conduct such an interview and not once touch on this unsavory history is equivalent to talking for an hour about secession without once mentioning slavery. Many people have done this, of course, but they are not professional historians. The fact is that the same emotions that cause people to ignore slavery's role in secession also make it uncomfortable to discuss civil rights in connection to the rise of the GOP. But make no mistake, white Southerners seceded from the Union for essentially the same reason their great grandchildren seceded from the Democratic Party a century later.
That Walter Edgar did not ask Courson about the role of race in the rise of the Republican Party represents something close to malpractice. And he was aided and abetted by ETV Radio.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King.