The South has a bitter tradition of race-baiting politicians. Many were colorful rogues who did not hesitate to break the law, lead a mob, or commit cold-blooded murder to advance their careers. Whether they were born scoundrels who found an opportunity in politics, or whether they were decent people who were corrupted by the Southern political culture is a chicken-and-egg conundrum that may never be answered. But they have left their mark on the South and held all of us back, both in terms of economic development and in terms of healing the wounds of history.
You know who they are — men like George Wallace and Lester Maddox and "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, men who would have been in jail if they were not in high elective office. In Charleston today, we have an excellent specimen of this Jurassic creature living among us. Rep. John Graham Altman III is a lout who was once jailed for failure to pay child support. But he rarely misses an opportunity to publicly insult gays and blacks. For that reason he is adored by his House District 119 supporters, who return him to the General Assembly year after year.
Until recently, we had another racist demagogue in our midst, and insomuch as the exception proves the rule, this one was black.
Kwadjo Campbell held the District 4 Charleston City Council seat for nearly eight years, until he was indicted and suspended from office last July. The charges involved misconduct in office and filing false campaign disclosure reports with the State Ethics Commission, among other things.
Last February, he was arrested twice in one week on unrelated traffic and drug charges. There was also the matter of Campbell asking a developer to contribute to a neighborhood organization while a key zoning vote was pending. And let us not forget his repeated arrests for failure to pay child support.
Even if he is eventually acquitted on the criminal charges, his career remains one of irresponsible and antisocial behavior, marked by a bitter personal feud with Mayor Joe Riley and charges of racism against the white figures who have thwarted him or tried to hold him accountable for his behavior.
In short, Kwadjo Campbell was an archetypal demagogue who built his brief career by pointing fingers and beating the drum of racial animosity, while rarely doing a damned thing to help the desperately needy people he was elected to serve.
Campbell is gone from City Council, but he has left a toxic residue of anger in his old district. That anger found a target in last fall's election to replace him.
Thurston Smith, 43, is a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who came to Charleston in 1998 in his capacity as a counselor with the Veteran's Administration. In his office each day he sees the victims of drug abuse; he sees the same thing when he steps out of his apartment door on the East Side each morning. That was at least part of the reason he ran for the District 4 seat to replace Campbell. Not only did he pledge to fight the East Side drug epidemic — something Campbell seemed all too comfortable with — but he said he looked forward to working with Mayor Riley and the rest of the council.
Apparently those were fighting words to the angry constituents Campbell left behind. They heckled him at one candidates' forum and a woman stood and screamed hysterically to interrupt his opening remarks. Two tires were flattened on his car in front of his apartment. Worse yet, his apartment was broken into twice. Nothing was stolen. Someone just wanted to make a point.
Smith does not for a moment think any of his six primary opponents were responsible for these little acts of terror. He blames it on the atmosphere of racial animosity on which Campbell thrived and helped to foster. The irony, of course, is that Smith is also black. Apparently, just offering to work with the white community was enough to make him a target of the black hatemongers.
Thurston Smith did not win the District 4 seat. It went to long-time community leader (and former councilmember) Robert Mitchell. But Smith is not finished. He says he is already thinking about running again in four years. Until then, there are some serious lessons to take home from the District 4 election.
Racism is the enemy of all of us — even the racists. It separates people from one another and from their own best nature. It holds us back as individuals and as a society. And in the case of Thurston Smith, it leads to the harassment of a good man who wanted nothing more than an opportunity to serve his community.
Kwadjo Campbell is gone, but his legacy lives on.