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4 Decades After Burning Confederate Flag, SC Activist Brett Bursey Says the Struggle Goes On

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In Charleston, South Carolina, we speak with Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, who calls himself the oldest living Confederate prisoner of war. He says he is still out on bond after he burned the Confederate flag in 1969. Bursey knew Rev. Clementa Pinckney and says, “I feel a responsibility to Clementa to take advantage of the sacrifice he made to challenge the hypocrisy and bigotry” of Governor Nikki Haley and Republican lawmakers who backed voter ID legislation and blocked the expansion of Medicaid eligibility in the state.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Brett Bursey is with us right now, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network. He burned the Confederate flag in 1969. He calls himself the oldest living Confederate prisoner of war. Brett Bursey is head of the South Carolina progressive coalition.

Brett, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts, as just behind us, the body of Reverend Pinckney, in the hearse now, as it is taken slowly around the corner to College of Charleston?

BRETT BURSEY: Well, Amy, first, let me say that I was a good friend of Clementa’s. And when he came to the state House, he was 23, 24 years old. The Progressive Network does a lot of policy work and for the Black Caucus, and Clementa was one of our sponsors for a clean elections bill, and he was our spokesperson about the corrupting influence of money on politics for several years. I knew the wife, the kids.

And it’s just—it’s been such an impactful thing that I feel a responsibility to Clementa, and the other people that are dead, to take advantage of the opportunities their sacrifices made to challenge the hypocrisy and the cynicism that fuels the bigotry, that will still be there if they take the flag down. I mean, the governor has come out and said, “Take the flag down.” She wouldn’t have done that if this hadn’t happened. I mean, she has a little understanding of how negative her policies impact people, refusing to take the Medicaid expansion money. We’ve knocked on doors in South Carolina to talk to people about—that didn’t get any healthcare. And when we told them that the governor said they didn’t want it, we don’t need it, they wanted to know why. And we told them, “Well, you’ll have to call the governor. I can’t explain why she would deny you healthcare.” And so, it’s disingenuous and hypocritical, what we’re seeing, all these politicians coming out an decrying—

AMY GOODMAN: And the voting rights?

BRETT BURSEY: —decrying racism. Where have they been?

AMY GOODMAN: Voting rights?

BRETT BURSEY: Nikki was a big champion of photo ID bills that would have kept people from voting. And we found a dozen people and had a successful case, Section 5 case, in the Department of Justice to block the bill. And they rewrote the bill in Washington, D.C., in court, and the court said you don’t need a photo ID under the new photo ID law. So it was just tremendous kabuki theater that disenfranchises people. We have the lowest—least competitive elections in the nation, that 75 percent of our legislators are elected with no opposition. And that the idea that the people that are championing our democracy have shut the process down, we have profound problems. And I really do feel that some of this energy that’s coming from this terrible tragedy is going to help direct some energy toward solving some of these longer institutional problems that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Brett Bursey, can you talk about what you did in 1969?

BRETT BURSEY: Well, it’s kind of like what I just said. I mean, I was raised in the South. I graduated from Beaufort High School 1966, a segregated high school, and came up to the University of South Carolina, then got involved with the Southern Student Organizing Committee, which was a civil rights group that was formed when the white people left SNCC. And I was a state traveler for SSOC in '68 and ’69. The occasion of the flag burning at the university was on the anniversary of the Orangeburg massacre, when in 1968 students at State University, which is the school's historic black college in Orangeburg, were gunned down by highway patrolmen. Three of them were killed, 29 injured. And no one—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking Orangeburg, the Orangeburg massacre.

BRETT BURSEY: Orangeburg, the Orangeburg massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain it very quickly. You’re talking about February of?

BRETT BURSEY: February 8, 1968.

AMY GOODMAN: Right before Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.

BRETT BURSEY: That was in April. And so, the event where the flag was burned was the first anniversary, in ’69, of the Orangeburg massacre. And I put on an event called—we were going to call it Black Awareness Week, but we called it White Awareness Week.

AMY GOODMAN: But Orangeburg is so important. I remember when President Obama was first running for president—

BRETT BURSEY: He mentioned it.

AMY GOODMAN: —and he went bowling, and he gutterballed, and everyone was making fun of him. But what was so significant is he’s an African-American man bowling, because Orangeburg was about a bowling alley, is that right?

BRETT BURSEY: It was about a bowling alley.

AMY GOODMAN: About integrating a bowling alley. And the police, without warning, opened fire on the students who were fighting for that integration of the alley.

BRETT BURSEY: Yes, and no one was ever punished for that killing. Cleve Sellers, one of the organizers—he was working with SNCC—ended up spending, I think, a year in jail.

But the flag was burned, in part because the university was using the flag, the Confederate flag, and playing “Dixie” at sporting events, a sea of Confederate flags. And we marched up to the president’s house and demanded they quit doing that, and he said, “OK.” And we felt all empowered. We marched up to the Legislature, which was across the street from the university, and that was the first time I realized that all 170 legislators were white, and there hadn’t been a black legislator since the end of Reconstruction in the 1890s. We went back to the campus. This is now—the flag was on the dome at the time. The flag went up April 12th, 1961, on the anniversary, 100th anniversary, of the start of the Civil War, which of course was brought to you by people here in Charleston, South Carolina. And we burned the flag. And I was arrested five days later for defacing or defiling or casting contempt by word or deed upon flags of the Confederacy.

AMY GOODMAN: So you burned the flag where?

BRETT BURSEY: On the university campus, in front of the president’s house.

AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested.

BRETT BURSEY: Yeah. Yeah, I was arrested, and—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go to jail?

BRETT BURSEY: I went to jail, paid my bond, got out, and I’m still awaiting trial.

AMY GOODMAN: So you call yourself?

BRETT BURSEY: Well, it’s—yeah, it’s a partially humorous term that I feel I’ve earned, in being the oldest living Confederate prisoner of war. I had—it’s one of the worst things, clearly, I ever did in the eyes of authorities in South Carolina. I’ve been identified as someone that did that, and beaten up in police custody because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Brett Bursey, for joining us. The hearse has just moved on. Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, burned the Confederate flag back in 1969. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back here in front of the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a minute.

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