WASHINGTON--The White House hopefuls and the national television and print reporters left South Carolina the day after its Feb. 19 Republican presidential primary and have not been back since--which is fine with most South Carolinians.
That primary campaign was a disaster for the Palmetto State's public image. Americans learned that Bob Jones University, one of the state's leading institutions of higher learning, banned interracial dating and propounded on its Web site deeply prejudiced views about the Roman Catholic faith.
They also learned that 135 years after the Civil War had ended, the Confederate battle flag still flies over the state capitol in Columbia and apparently is regarded as so sacrosanct that neither George W. Bush nor John McCain would take the political risk of questioning why it is there.
Bush cravenly said that as a Texan, he would never offer advice on a South Carolina issue. McCain said he understood why most African-Americans and many whites see the flag as a divisive symbol of a slaveholding past, but said that as a descendant of men who fought for the Confederacy, he could also accept it as part of a more honorable legacy. The whole debate left other Americans thinking of South Carolina as a state fixated on its 19th century past, rather than its 21st century future.
All of which justifiably angered the people of South Carolina.
Bob Jones University has to answer for itself, which it began to do last month by ending its ridiculous interracial dating policy. But the flag issue is a matter of politics and public policy, and for more and more South Carolinians, a source of acute embarrassment.
They know--as most other Americans do not--that the last two men elected to lead the state government, former Republican Gov. David Beasley and current Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, both have said the battle flag should be moved to an appropriate memorial, leaving Old Glory and the state flag of South Carolina to wave over the capitol. As Hodges put it, ''The debate over the Confederate flag has claimed too much of our time and energy--energy that can be put to better use building schools, improving health care and recruiting jobs.''
They know--as most other Americans do not--that public opinion polls show a steadily increasing majority of South Carolinians favor either relocating the battle flag or simply removing it. In one poll published this past winter, seven out of 10 favored one or the other of those options.
Next Sunday (April 2), some of the leaders of South Carolina will attempt to educate their fellow Americans, and at the same time, put some backbone into the state Legislature, by launching a four-day march from Charleston, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, to Columbia to demand action to resolve the destructively divisive flag issue.
The march was organized by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., with the support of Columbia Mayor Bob Coble. They have enlisted some notable South Carolinians to join them. Among them: Hugh McColl Jr., the chief executive of BankAmerica Corporation, and Darla Moore, an investor who recently made a $25 million gift to the University of South Carolina.
Riley told me that the 116-mile march is a plea to the Legislature to ''get in step with the people of South Carolina.'' It is due to adjourn in two months and no bill on the flag has reached the floor of either the Democratic-controlled state Senate or the Republican-controlled House. But the ice may be breaking. Pressure is coming from many sides. A tourism boycott urged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's South Carolina chapter went into effect last Jan. 1 and has cost the state millions of dollars in convention revenue. Many local Chambers of Commerce have called for action to move the Confederate flag to one of the Civil War memorials or statues on the capitol grounds. On March 14, the state Chamber of Commerce launched a media campaign in support of Hodges' effort to take the flag off the dome.
A bill may come to the floor of the state Senate early in April and some observers speculate the outlook in the House of Representatives may improve once the March 31 filing deadline for the November election is past.
An outsider cannot judge the chances of resolving the issue this year. But as one who has known South Carolina fondly since I took infantry basic at Fort Jackson years ago and has admired many of its leaders, I think it deserves a better reputation than the bigotry that was portrayed during last month's primary. Joe Riley and his friends have lots of people rooting for them.
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