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2000-01-14

South Carolina Confederate Flag Controversy

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The battle in South Carolina over the Confederate flag continues. This week, a coalition of state Republican lawmakers said they won’t consider removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol until the NAACP ends its economic boycott of the Palmetto State. [includes rush transcript]

The Confederate flag has flown on the State House dome since 1962. It also flies in the House and Senate chambers. The NAACP believes that the flag is an offensive symbol to African Americans. The civil rights group says that more than 200 conventions originally planned for South Carolina have been canceled as a result of their boycott.

And the debate over the flag has found its way into presidential politics. You have presidential hopeful G.W. Bush saying that outsiders should butt out of the issue. According to Bush, "The people of South Carolina can make that decision." And you have Arizona Senator McCain saying "Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who have fought for the Confederacy, none of whom owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably.’’

Meanwhile, a group of black South Carolina voters has filed a lawsuit against that state’s Republican Party. The suit alleges that the GOP has violated the Voting Rights Act by deliberately closing polling places in black communities in the last two presidential primaries. South Carolina is the only state that allows its political parties to conduct its primaries and tabulate their own votes without oversight from the state elections board.

Guests:

  • Todd Rutherford, a Black State Representative from Columbia, South Carolina. He is a plaintiff in the suit against the state Republican Party and is a national board member of the NAACP
  • Tom Turnipseed, civil rights attorney and radio talk show host in Columbia. He is participating in a Martin Luther King Day march on the State Capitol that plans to draw 30-40,000 people.
  • Lake E High, Jr., former Chair, League of the South, and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He was one of the organizers of a pro-Confederate flag rally last Saturday at the State Capitol that drew over 6,000 people.
  • Chris Sullivan of the South Carolina Heritage Coalition, organizer of the rally last Saturday.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez, not to be confused with Elian’s dad.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Good day, Amy, and to our listeners. Yes, and Elian’s dad on Nightline last night said he’d like to go to Miami with a rifle and get his son back.

AMY GOODMAN:

It wasn’t you, Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ:

No, that wasn’t me, no.

AMY GOODMAN:

OK.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

But he’s obviously getting increasingly impatient with the legal processes here in the US and, of course, with Janet Reno, on the one hand, saying the boy should move back, but on the other hand saying we’re not going to do anything right now to send him back.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we’re going to deal with this issue later in the show, but I also think there’s some presidential politics at play here, because just as in 1992 President Clinton, when he was first running for president, got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the rightwing Cuban American community in Florida — at the time, Jorge Mas Canosa was its head — well, Al Gore has also gotten, I believe, more than $350,000 from that same community so far, and this is even before he came out with saying he hesitated about having Elian Gonzalez sent right back to Cuba. So I bet there’s a lot of pressure on Janet Reno.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Oh, absolutely. And also President Clinton got about 46 or 48 percent of the Cuban vote in the presidential race, highly unusual for a Democratic candidate, and I think Gore is trying to replicate that. It’s unfortunate that everyone is using this six-year-old boy for their political purposes.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s right. Well, George Bush, George W. Bush, who is Governor of Texas, his brother, Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, also has gotten just about that, a little bit more than Gore, from the Cuban American community in Miami.

And today we’re going to talk about another issue that is finding its way into presidential politics. Well, you have presidential hopeful G.W. Bush saying that outsiders should butt out of the issue of the Confederate flag that flies atop the Capitol building in South Carolina. According to Bush, “The people of South Carolina can make that decision.” And you have Arizona Senator John McCain saying, “Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, none of whom owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably.”

Well, that battle in South Carolina over the Confederate flag continues. This week, a coalition of state Republican lawmakers said they won’t consider removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol until the NAACP ends its economic boycott of the state. The Confederate flag has flown on the State House dome since 1962. It also flies in the House and Senate chambers. The NAACP believes the flag is an offensive symbol to African Americans, along with a number of other groups. The civil rights group says that more than 200 conventions originally planned for South Carolina have been canceled as a result of their boycott.


Meanwhile, a group of black South Carolina voters has filed a lawsuit against the state’s Republican Party, alleging that the GOP has violated the Voting Rights Act by deliberately closing polling places in black communities in the last two presidential primaries.

We’ll go to that last issue in a little while, but on the issue of the Confederate flag, we’re joined by several people to debate it. Todd Rutherford is with us, a black state representative from Columbia, South Carolina. Tom Turnipseed, a civil rights attorney and once the campaign manager for George Wallace, as he calls himself once an avowed racist. And Lake High, Jr. is with us, former chair, League of the South, and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans. He’s one of the organizers of the pro-Confederate flag rally last Saturday at the State Capitol that drew over 6,000 people.

Lake High, Jr., why don’t we begin with you? Why do you want the Confederate flag to remain flying over the Capitol?

LAKE HIGH, JR.:

Well, good morning. I’ll tell you, it’s such a good symbol of hope and freedom that it really should fly everywhere. Remember back when the Berlin Wall came down, people were waving the Confederate flag, and just a year or so ago students were carrying it in the face of Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

It’s always been a symbol of rebellion against centralized authority and tyranny, and people see it — in fact, troops in Eritrea, as we speak, African troops are using that flag as their battle flag against a central government in Ethiopia. So when you fly that flag, people see it as a symbol against centralized authority and rebellion, and as long as it flies, then you know that you’ve got some people out there who will just simply not knuckle under to tyrants and to central government. And so, it’s a good symbol of hope.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Tom Turnipseed, what’s your reaction to his comments?

TOM TURNIPSEED:

Quite the opposite. To me, in news reports I read, I didn’t happen to see what he’s talking about. Maybe I was so blind that I couldn’t see or something, but to me it’s an international symbol of white supremacy and hate and fear.

And, you know, you look at the Aryan Nation folks out there that believe we’ve got to have a race war. You look at the skinheads in Nazi Germany. It was a symbol of the pro-apartheid people in South Africa. And I know this, that when I worked for George Wallace and went all over the country twenty-five, thirty years ago, we took that Confederate flag with us.

And it’s a way to deny racism, and I’ll admit too that it is a symbol of hopelessness about government, that people think that, you know, that we can’t be a self-governing group, we can’t all work together, and I believe we can. And I agree with him that it is a symbol that government cannot ever work. It is, you know, kind of an anarchist symbol, too.

But it’s a symbol of white supremacy, fear, hate and division, and the politics of the people that support it; you start talking to them a little bit further about what their feelings really are about African American folks, and they’re what we call the neoconservatives — -Confederates. A lot of them would like to really go back to a time previous to the Civil War, and it’s pretty sad.

And I just know this, that when we brought that $37 million suit against the Klan, and we were co-counsel — my law firm was, along with Morris Dees — for burning the black church down in near Manning, South Carolina, the South Carolina low country, that in the closing arguments, we just put on a videotape that had been shot of the rally where the Grand Dragon, with his robes on and all, was exhorting with his hatefulness his folks to go burn them out, and that Confederate flag was waving right up in front. And it’s not a thing of the past. It’s right up to this point in time.

And I’ll tell you what’s really wonderful right now that’s going on with economic sanctions by the NAACP, because —

LAKE HIGH, JR.:

Yes, it is. Yes.

TOM TURNIPSEED:

—- all of the Chamber of Commerce and everybody wants to get the flag on down now, because finally we’re getting into what economic sanctions have been all along to African Americans. They’ve been sanctioned for 450 years by their black skin and dark skin, and still are. I mean, you can look at the numbers, the covert corporate color bias. You can look at the criminal justice system and the racial profiling that’s going on, and it’s a continuing thing, and it’s starting to call attention to the tremendous taking -— economic oppression of African Americans because of their skin color.

And this issue has just focused it so good. People are starting to write about it editorially in the local newspapers, and all of a sudden now, the guy — people want to get it on down, and I do, too, and I’ve been wanting to get it down for twenty-five years. So I think it’s coming down, and it’s become a great embarrassment to the Republican Party. I see in the paper this morning that the [inaudible] —

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Mr. Turnipseed —

LAKE HIGH, JR.:

I didn’t realize that you were a monologist.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Mr. Turnipseed, could you hold up for one second?

TOM TURNIPSEED:

Yeah, sure.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

I’d like to introduce Chris Sullivan also, of the South Carolina Heritage Coalition, who was an organizer of the rally last Saturday. Mr. Sullivan, what about this issue? For instance, some people would say, well, there were many loyal, brave soldiers in Germany who fought under Hitler because their country called them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that years later they can raise the Nazi flag as a symbol of their bravery. What about that issue or that comparison?

CHRIS SULLIVAN:

Well, I think that’s a false issue. I don’t think there is any comparison between Nazism or the flag of the National Socialist Party and the Confederate battle flag, which was carried in battle by South Carolinians who were defending their state from invasion. In 1861 to 1865, 21,000-some-odd men from South Carolina died defending their state and defending their families, and that’s why we fly that flag, as a memorial to those men.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, Todd Rutherford, you sit under that flag in the State House in Columbia, South Carolina. What’s your response to Chris Sullivan?

TODD RUTHERFORD:

I not only sit under that flag, because it sits atop of the dome, but when I pledge allegiance every morning, I have to look at the flag as I look at the American flag, and it represents to me the same heritage that they speak of, just in a different way, because when they talk about the Civil War and they talk about the numbers of men that were lost, there were men that were lost fighting to keep alive the heritage or the life that was going on in South Carolina at the time, which was one that existed with my people in slavery, my fathers, my forefathers, who came out of a system that kept us in bondage. And, you know, the fact that we are still flying that flag atop the State House dome to remind us of that time is just ridiculous.

Yes, it has some historical significance. It represents to them a time when their forefathers fought for what they believed in, but it also represents for me a time when my forefathers were in slavery. It’s not something that you put on top of the Capitol dome. It’s not something that you hang in the House and Senate chambers. We don’t have a number of flags that people can talk about — well, this is my Irish flag; this is my England flag. It’s not about that. It is about the sovereign issue of a State Capitol, a Senate chamber, a House chamber, and what belongs on top of the dome and in those two chambers. That flag needs to go someplace of historical significance that is not on top of the State House dome.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, is the NAACP going to stop the boycott before South Carolina figures out what to do?

TODD RUTHERFORD:

Yeah, fortunately for the NAACP, it is much larger than them now. You’ve got the state Chamber of Commerce, the local Chambers of Commerce. You’ve got the University of South Carolina. You’ve got Clemson, the Citadel, all of their boards asking for the flag to be taken down. It’s much larger than the NAACP now.

There’s no reason for them to stop the boycott when before the boycott came, nobody even mentioned the flag. We went through an entire session last year with not one mention of the flag. So the boycott has only focused our attention on what should happen with the flag and the fact that it should come down, because now you’ve got coalitions of people telling the business community, telling Republican lawmakers, that, look, this is ridiculous. We’re arguing about something that represents history to some and hatred to others, but either way, it does not belong on the State Capitol of South Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN:

We have to break for stations to identify themselves. We’ll let the others respond in a minute. Todd Rutherford, a board member of the NAACP, black state representative from Columbia, South Carolina; Tom Turnipseed, civil rights attorney, ran for attorney general of South Carolina, former campaign manager for George Wallace; Lake High, Jr., former chair, League of the South, and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; and Chris Sullivan, a fellow Confederate of the South Carolina Heritage Coalition, organizer of a major pro-flag rally last Saturday. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! the Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez, as we continue this discussion of the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina State House — will it or will it not continue to fly? — and also take on the issue of a lawsuit that has been filed against the state Republican Party with Todd Rutherford, who’s one of the plaintiffs in the case. Let’s go to that and then back to the flag. Todd Rutherford, you have filed suit against the Republican Party for closing polling places in black communities in the last two presidential primaries, saying it violates the Voting Rights Act. What happened?

TODD RUTHERFORD:

Well, let me tell you what they did. It’s more than just closing them. They not only closed black precincts, and in particular in my district in downtown Columbia, what they did was tell all those people in the polling booths that they had closed to go to another majority-black district to vote. They didn’t send them to the closest polling precinct. They didn’t send them to majority-white precincts. And in some cases, at least one, they made one polling precinct go through two majority-white precincts to go and vote. And so, it’s more than simply closing it down because we don’t have the manpower or we don’t have the financial resources. They closed it down, and they specifically told those people not to go to the closest polling place but to go to another majority-black voting precinct in order to vote.

You cannot, in this day and age and in this party that talks about inclusion and that talks about the flag is not about hatred, and here they are closing down polling precincts in black neighborhoods because they say they don’t have the manpower and don’t have the financial resources and asking them to go and vote in another majority-black precinct. Yeah, it represents, again, the feelings of the Republican Party, coming from a senator, Senator Ravenel, who from Charleston earlier this week called the National NAACP — called us the “National Association of Retarded People,” and a party leader who would not even demand an apology from him. That being Henry McMaster. So that is why this lawsuit was filed. That’s the basis of the lawsuit and what we’re trying to remedy in the upcoming Republican primary.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

I’d like to bring back Lake High, former chair of the League of the South and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to ask him, in terms of the — of those who — of the spread now of the call for taking down the Confederate flag, from not just the NAACP and black organizations, but to many mainstream organizations in South Carolina, what’s your response to that?

LAKE HIGH, JR.:

Well, it really is — shows the power of the media in today’s American life. The newspaper here, the state newspaper, which is owned by Knight Ridder, which used to be out of Miami, as I’m sure you’re aware of, but now out of San Jose, California, Brad Warthen, who’s an editorial writer down there, bragged that he had written over 200 editorials himself in the last several years and said that the paper had had over 500, and I went back last month, December, and counted. They had four editorials, fourteen op-eds against, and twenty-seven negative articles, and of course none on the other side. It was forty-five to zero. What they’ve managed to do is stir everyone up, so of course you have all sorts of people out there doing it, whereas, as Representative Rutherford pointed out, nobody even mentioned it last year at the State House.

This year, it’s been orchestrated. It is a good example — and I’m sure those of you in the media will be delighted with this — but it’s a good example of just how the media, if they will just get on it and stay on it, they can get people all stirred up.

AMY GOODMAN:

Lake High, I wanted to ask your fellow Confederate Chris Sullivan this question, and that is, even if the flag represents to you a brave history, because it represents something else to particularly African Americans, that it represents a symbol of slavery and oppression, would you ever consider taking the flag off the Capitol simply because it offends a number of fellow South Carolinians?

CHRIS SULLIVAN:

Well, here’s the problem. The NAACP and these other anti-flag groups have vowed that they are on a campaign to eradicate all Southern symbols from Southern places. We keep hearing this talk about compromise, but the NAACP will never, ever commit to where they think is a, quote, “acceptable place” to display these kinds of symbols.

I can give you example after example just in South Carolina where a flag in a circle of flags or by a monument or even a monument itself has been attacked by these groups. So our concern is that they’re somewhat disingenuous when they say all they want is just to get it off the dome because they don’t like what it means to them or something like that, because this is just incrementalism.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tom Turnipseed?

TOM TURNIPSEED:

What are you asking?

AMY GOODMAN:

Your response to Chris Sullivan.

TOM TURNIPSEED:

Oh, gosh. I mean, you know, number one, it’s just not a symbol of our sovereignty. We don’t pay taxes to the Confederacy, thank God, and we don’t have the laws of the Confederacy, which had involuntary servitude, and actually in South Carolina, the state laws were that you couldn’t — it was a crime to even educate a black person. And it’s just — you know, it was put up in 1962 as a temporary measure by the legislature to celebrate the centennial of the secession from the Union and all, and they’ve just kept it up there.

And we’ve been trying to get it down ever since I was a state senator. I introduced a bill back then to try to get it down. I was a state senator from ’76 to ’80, and it’s just — it’s ridiculous, because the Confederate flag, contrary to what Mr. Lake said — or Lake High said, is a worldwide symbol of white supremacy. I mean, you know, go out to the Aryan Nation. Check out the guy that shot up the kids out in LA that — not too long ago. The Confederate flag — you see it everywhere you go when you got people that hate and fear black folks.

And it didn’t just end with the Civil War. You can look at pictures of some of the lynchings that took place. You can look at the Night Riders. You can look at Birmingham with Bull Connor and the fire hoses and the police dogs. Every time black people get their butts kicked, the Confederate flag’s out there, and it’s going on right up to this point in time.

I don’t want to just deal with the Civil War. That’s enough. That was the greatest mistake in the history of this country. White folks could vote back then. You know, guys like — some of them say, “Oh, our folks didn’t own any slaves back then.” White folks do that support the flag. They had the right to vote; why didn’t they abolish slavery? They let the slave owners run this daggum state, and then our secession articles, when we seceded from the Union, South Carolina, it’s right up front: we don’t want them messing with our property, our slaves.

And the whole issue of the Civil War — they say states’ rights. It was states’ rights to own slaves and spread slavery westward. That was the controversy that led to the greatest mistake in the history of this country, cost more lives than almost all the wars put together, and we continue to make the mistake of letting that flag and these issues divide us over race. And it’s really — the romanticization and the glorification of the Confederacy is the way to deny racism.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking to Tom —

TOM TURNIPSEED:

If you just thought it was a wonderful time, and Uncle Remus, Old Black Joe, it’s not — it wasn’t a wonderful time, and that flag represents all of these times we’re talking about right up to this point in time.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tom Turnipseed ran for attorney general of South Carolina.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Chris Sullivan, what about this issue that the Confederate flag doesn’t represent something in the past. It does represent many people who still harbor racist views toward African Americans and even commit crimes of violence against African Americans.

CHRIS SULLIVAN:

Well, I think if you look at these same videos that we keep hearing referred to, you’ll also see the Christian cross and the United States flag. And we’re certainly — nobody’s certainly arguing that those should be removed. Their attacks are focused on the Confederate flag.

Part of the reason that we had the Southern Heritage Celebration, the rally, just a few days ago — just a week or so ago now — was to demonstrate that decent, honorable, respectful citizens of this state love and respect our state’s history and our ancestors who defended our state, and we intend to see to it that the flag is honorably displayed.

AMY GOODMAN:

Lake High, Jr., what were your reactions to the state senator who compared the National Association of Colored People to the National Association of Retarded People and then, when attacked for this, said he apologized to retarded people for making the comparison?

LAKE HIGH, JR.:

Well, you know that was a slip of the lip. The man has a son with Down syndrome and has served for years on the National Association for Retarded People, and it was just a slip of the lip. Now, he — of course, what he said was — now he said it. And then, when the usual aggressiveness started, “Oh, you’ve got to apologize,” he said, “Sure, I’ll apologize, if you will apologize,” saying this to Darrell Jackson, who was senator then — “if you will apologize for this ad, which you didn’t — which was not a slip of the lip, but which you spent days and weeks distributing, portraying South Carolinians as Klansmen.” And, of course, Darrell Jackson wouldn’t apologize for that, so he didn’t either.

AMY GOODMAN:

I’m going to give the last word to Todd Rutherford. Your response to the presidential candidates, George Bush and John McCain, basically saying this is a South Carolina issue.

TODD RUTHERFORD:

That is absolutely unconscionable that somebody who expects to exude national leadership cannot take a stand on an issue one way or another. Either he supports the flag, or he does not. I mean, it’s not something that you have to sit back and think about.

And as for those people who organized the rally, who participated in the rally, who watched Senator Ravenel make that comment and did not demand an apology from him themselves, if it was a slip of the lip, then go ahead and apologize immediately. Don’t wait on the state senator to call you to the Senate floor to apologize and then say, “Well, I’ll apologize, if you’ll apologize for this.” He didn’t offend that one man. He offended the membership of the NAACP and those who hold it in high regard, and even those who don’t. He should have offended those people that put on the flag rally, that said, “Well, wait a minute, it’s not about hatred; it’s about heritage,” and if it’s about heritage you don’t allow people to get up and call people names and besmirch organizations.

AMY GOODMAN:

On that note, I want to thank you all very much for being with us — we have to move to another issue — Todd Rutherford, black state representative from Columbia, South Carolina, also a plaintiff in a suit against the South Carolina Republican Party; Tom Turnipseed, civil rights attorney in South Carolina; Lake High, Jr., former chair, League of the South, and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; and Chris Sullivan of the South Carolina Heritage Coalition.

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