Last week, I returned to Charleston, S.C., where President Obama gave his beautiful eulogy for slain state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. To me, the tragedy wasn’t just another news story. I was raised in nearby Savannah and lived in Charleston for 12 years, leaving in 2010.
I knew one of the people slain at the Charleston church massacre: Cynthia Hurd, who managed the John L. Dart Library in the city. For many years, I lived around the corner. Once Charleston’s “colored” library, the Dart’s collection of African-American literature was a crucial part of my intellectual development — where I honed my knowledge of black studies. The library was also a neighborhood institution.
At around 3 p.m. every weekday, after the neighborhood elementary school let out, the Dart Library became an after-school center. Hurd and her library staff did “double duty” by providing entertaining and educational programs for a generation of kids. The library epitomized the values of community, civility, and neighborliness that still characterize the South at its best.
But too many of my memories evoke the South at its worst. Throughout my years in Georgia and South Carolina, the South’s potentially inspiring communal social ethos was debased by its racial politics and legacy.
South Carolina is the birthplace of the Confederacy, as the very first state to secede from the Union. It has built a lucrative tourism industry on its Confederate and Civil War history — and compiled a dismal record on civil rights and minority participation.
Obama, in his eulogy, made a simple declaration about Confederate soldiers. “The cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.” During my time in South Carolina, I knew too many people who resisted acknowledging this truth.
Consider that South Carolina kept Sen. Strom Thurmond in office for 48 years. For most of his career, Thurmond was a staunch segregationist. He opposed President Truman’s executive orders integrating the armed forces, and later railed against desegregation and the civil rights movement. Thurmond never publicly acknowledged his own biracial daughter, who he fathered by a 16-year-old family housekeeper.
Fifteen years ago, South Carolina faced a challenge from the NAACP over the Confederate flag’s presence on the statehouse grounds. State lawmakers were unmoved by reasonable arguments over history, racial unity, or the injustice of elevating a symbol which insulted many South Carolinians.
The shadow of racism still lingers. Slaves built Charleston’s majestic antebellum mansions. Yet the black population in the city has dropped from 42 percent in 1990 to 23 percent, according to census data. Charleston’s black community still feels shut out of decisions involving housing and education.
Obama encouraged Americans to turn tragedy to redemption, and to “find our best selves” in the horror of what happened.
South Carolina’s racial issues afflict the whole South and, beyond that, the nation. We are divided over how to make amends for historic injustices. In this light, it is a positive sign that South Carolina officials have finally expressed a willingness to take down the Confederate flag. It’s a gesture toward true social integration and unity.
It will not be easy for America to heal its racial wounds. But if a state that has been so invested in defending the remnants of racism can make a significant gesture toward change, maybe America can move forward, too.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Santa Fe, N.M. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.