"Slavery Deeply Embedded" in South Carolina: Emanuel AME Church on Street Named for Racist Lawmaker

June 26, 2015


Kevin Alexander Gray,

civil rights activist and community organizer based in Columbia, South Carolina. He edited the book Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence and is the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.

When Rev. Clementa Pinckney lay in state at the Capitol this week, his body had to be brought past the Confederate flag that still flies there and is the symbol embraced by his killer, Dylann Roof. The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is located on Calhoun Street, named for one of the most prominent pro-slavery figures in history, the late Senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun, who argued slavery was a "positive good" rather than a "necessary evil." "Slavery is deeply embedded in the history of this state," says our guest Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights activist and community organizer based in Columbia, South Carolina. Alexander notes calls to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol are just the beginning of what needs to change. "It’s about where we go moving forward. … We can’t just talk about that flag."


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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in Charleston, South Carolina, right in front of Mother Emanuel. That’s the scene of the crime more than a week ago, when the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, opened fire on a Bible study class that he himself had attended, slaughtering nine people. The funerals are underway. Today’s funeral is taking place at TD Arena at College of Charleston. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Until yesterday, the president of College of Charleston, Glenn McConnell, had not weighed in on the growing controversy over the Confederate flag. McConnell is a former South Carolina state senator who brokered the legislative compromise in 2000 that saw the Confederate flag moved from atop the state House dome to its current location next to the Confederate Soldier Monument on the main lawn of the Capitol. McConnell is a Civil War re-enactor, the president of College of Charleston, who once owned a Confederate souvenir shop in North Charleston. On Thursday, he broke his silence, saying, quote, "I support Governor Haley’s call to remove the Confederate soldier’s flag from State House grounds as a visible statement of courtesy and good will to all those who may be offended by it. At the same time, I also urge all public officials and activists who are focusing on this issue to come together, the way the good people of Charleston joined hands following the terrible tragedy we suffered, and agree not to transfer the fight to other physical vestiges and memorials of our state’s past. In a spirit of good will and mutual respect, let us all agree that the monuments, cemeteries, historic street and building names shall be preserved and protected. ... Let us all pledge to respect each other and stand together in firm opposition to any efforts to sanitize, rewrite or bulldoze our history," said the president of the College of Charleston, who is a civil rights re-enactor, meaning he puts on a Confederate uniform re-enacting the Civil War.

For more, we’re joined here by Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights activist, community organizer, based in Columbia, South Carolina, South Carolina’s capital. He edited the book—co-edited the book Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence and is author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.

So, start off with the sentiment that is expressed by the president of the place right now where the funeral for Reverend Pinckney will be, where President Obama will be delivering the eulogy, Kevin.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: You know what? I’m glad that people are expressing their condolences and talking about how much of an outrage the slaughter of these souls has been for the state. But he’s such a hypocrite, because he has defended that flag and he defended this history throughout his career. He has made money on that flag. He has led the fight to expand slave tourism by raising money for the Confederate submarine, Hunley.

And so, what he’s afraid of is that the foundation of this state—the history of the state is so predicated on fighting for slavery, from Calhoun Street that we’re sitting on, named after John C. Calhoun, to when you come through—when you drive down here, you’ll cross over Calhoun County, named after John C. Calhoun—there are numerous streets in this state named after Calhoun.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, interestingly, Calhoun, the vice president, extremely pro-slavery senator—

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: He’s the father—he’s the father of the Ordinance of Nullification, and the words "interposition and nullification" that we often hear Dr. King talk about when we listen to his speeches, the rights of the Southern states to withdraw from the Union, this whole idea of states’ rights, the foundation now—the ideological foundation for the Republican Party in this country. So, you know, yeah, we need to revisit history.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, the statue of Calhoun is almost as high as this church, just down the street.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: It was built high to keep the freed slaves from tearing it down. That’s why it was built high.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there is this petition, Kevin—we met a man on line, we just played his comments—to change the name of Calhoun Street to Reverend Pinckney Street.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but we shouldn’t stop there. We ought to look at who we name all our institutions after. In the state Capitol, the Department of Education’s headquarters building is named after John Rutledge, who was the brother of Edward Rutledge, who was our delegate to the signing of the Declaration of Independence that forced the anti-slavery clause to be taken out of the declaration, that codified slavery. So slavery is so deeply embedded in the history of this state. So many names of streets and symbols and monuments are named after Confederate heroes. And then, even if you talk about that monument in which they’re flying the flag at now, the Confederate soldiers’ monument, it was only put there at the turn of the century with the rise of the culture of the lost cause. A lot of the names of these streets were put there after Reconstruction to reclaim power in this state, when black people had no power and no say in naming these streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray, just behind us, the hearse has pulled up just behind us in front of Mother Emanuel. Reverend Pinckney lay in state here yesterday. Thousands of people lined up. And the hearse, I assume, will be going over to the College of Charleston.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: College of Charleston.

AMY GOODMAN: But the comments of the president of the College of Charleston—finally broke his silence and said don’t wreck the monuments.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, someone probably told him not to say anything earlier, because he is such a lightning rod and a big defender of the flag and of Southern culture. And the thing is, they just can’t wrap their brains around the fact that the culture is based on support of slavery and the expansion of slavery, and that’s the legacy. They believe that the Civil War was some noble fight and that their parents went off to fight a noble war, when they fought a war that was immoral, and their ancestors were wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to be joined by Reverend Al Sharpton, who gave one of the eulogies yesterday at one of the first funerals. We will also hear from Muhiyidin d’Baha, who was very active on the issue of the police in North Charleston when Walter Scott was gunned down. Interestingly, Officer Michael Slager, charged with murder, is in the Charleston jail alongside Dylann Storm Roof. Final comments, Kevin Alexander Gray?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, I think it’s about where we go, moving forward. And we can’t just talk about that flag and burying these souls. We have to talk about how do we deal with structural racism and white supremacy, not just in South Carolina, but all across America.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray, thanks so much.

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