The march began five days earlier in Charleston, and ended in a rally of nearly 2,000 people on the south steps of the state capitol. A simultaneous rally by supporters of the Confederate flag drew about 300 people on the north side of the building.
The 120-mile march was called by Charleston mayor Joseph Riley, Jr., and other state politicians under the slogan "Get in step with the people of South Carolina."
The flag has become a central issue of debate since the NAACP began a tourist boycott of the state in January. An overwhelmingly working-class crowd of 50,000 poured into the streets of Columbia on Martin Luther King Day January 17 to press for the flag's removal and demand South Carolina recognize the civil rights movement with a holiday tribute to King.
The battle flag of the slaveocracy was raised by the state government here in 1962 in opposition to the advancing Black civil rights movement, and the legislature has refused to lower it since. Polarization over the flag was clearly seen along the march route. During the next-to-last day of the march, a dozen confederate flag flyers in several pickup trucks and cars repeatedly waited for the march to pass by and then drove past the march to wait again.
"Heritage, not hatred," "Liberal Hypocrites--What about Diversity," read some of their signs. One of the trucks had a bumper sticker backing ultrarightist politician Patrick Buchanan in his effort to be the Reform Party's presidential candidate.
Gail Jones, a manager from a convenience store who is Black, came out to the march on Sunday, and after seeing so many white people there for the cause said, "I had to stay to represent my people. The mayor gave us an opportunity and we have to use it." She marched the entire 120 miles.
A wide variety of participants with ranging views attended the rally, including some who were part of a protest for the first time. Mary Thompson, a 58-year-old retiree, said, "I heard the march was in a slump so I had to come out." Referring to the civil rights movement, she said, "I had little kids then, now I can march."
Bob Jenkins, an athletics coach for 38 years, said, "I have deep roots in the Southern tradition, my wife's family were plantation owners. This is about being fair to our brothers and sisters. In 1962 they raised the flag to commemorate 100 years of the Civil War, but it went up for other reasons."
Stanard Johnson, a 50-year-old groundskeeper at the state university, said it was his first time doing something like this. He came to make the point that this is a federal issue. "This flag is an extreme version of capitalism. It allowed a few people to gain a foothold and exploit the rest of the state."
Along the walk, some participants described their experiences with racist discrimination and why they feel the flag must come down. Warren, who only gave his first name, a 35-year-old paramedic, commented, "We had a barbecue over the weekend because we're not buying Maurice's BBQ." Outside Maurice's restaurant on the outskirts of Columbia was a very large professional banner supporting Patrick Buchanan for president, and to the side of the restaurant was a homemade sign on cardboard that read, "NAACP Retarded People."
One of four Black paramedics out of 175 in a county near Columbia, he described an incident of racist harassment from people he was sent to help. Warren came to march against the flag "because when I was a little boy it always represented hatred. In 1972 when schools were desegregated I always had to fight the little white boys."
Terry Parker, a 47-year-old member of the Steelworkers union, pointed out he would never have the job he does now without the civil rights movement. "I could've been a janitor," he said, "but not a maintenance mechanic." Like Warren, he pointed out it is still a fight to be treated as an equal.
Benjamin Sellers, a longtime activist for civil rights, said, "The civil rights movement took quite a while to get to South Carolina, but it has finally gotten here." Jackie Brown, a 24-year-old Black woman, said her great-grandfather was lynched under the Confederate battle flag.
The brief program at the capitol featured South Carolina governor James Hodges, who has called for moving the flag from atop the dome to a statue of Confederate general Wade Hampton on the statehouse grounds. The mayors of Charleston and Columbia also addressed the rally. Participants snatched up "Take it down" bumper stickers to wear that day and extra ones for their vehicles.
Many students from the nearby University of South Carolina campus and Benedict College joined in the rally. Some said they decided to go on the spot when they heard about the action, and about the pro-flag rally.
Eric Lee, a 20-year-old student from the University of North Carolina, came with a few other students because of the importance of the issue. "The flag divides, and they need to work together to improve the quality of life for all Carolinians," she said. Several high school students from Charleston said they took a day off to attend. After the "Get in step" rally ended, clumps of young protesters circled the building to confront the Confederate flag-wavers with handmade signs and "Take it down" stickers. Heated debate continued for a couple of hours.
As we go to press, the South Carolina Senate voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome and place a smaller version elsewhere on the statehouse grounds. The same day the House passed a bill to enact a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday there; the only state left that has no day to honor King.
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