South Carolina’s painful legacy of racism endures to this day

Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally on the steps of South Carolina’s statehouse. Reuters/Chris Keane

As this year’s presidential primaries roll on, South Carolina has once again taken its place as the first primary in the South. As ever, it does so under the weight of a legacy of racism – and one that all too recently played out in tragic fashion.

On the evening of June 17 2015, a gunman opened fire on congregants gathered for a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter killed nine people, including senior pastor and state senator Clemente C. Pinckney, and wounded one other.

The following morning, police arrested 21-year-old Dylann Roof. A self-proclaimed white supremacist, Roof reportedly later confessed that he had hoped his attack on the black church would act as the catalyst for a race war. His trial has yet to begin; his attorneys have said he will plead guilty only if the prosecution does not seek the death penalty.

The attack’s target was profoundly symbolic. Mother Emanuel, as it’s known, is home to the oldest independent black congregation in the US, and it has a historical tradition as a hub for black cultural and political activism. In 1822, church founder Denmark Vesey was executed for plotting a slave insurrection. Martin Luther King also used the church to push for black voting rights in 1962.

The massacre therefore not only claimed the lives of individual congregants, but also inflicted deep psychic wounds on the broader African American community beyond South Carolina’s borders.

The Charleston spree shooting also focused renewed attention on the persistence of hate groups in the US. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors and campaigns against extremist organisations, there are 784 such groups currently active across the country. In South Carolina alone, this includes the neo-Confederate League of the South and the anti-immigrant Americans Have Had Enough.

While these extremist organisations are clearly a threat, it is not only on the political margins but also in the mainstream that race continues to be a source of conflict and controversy in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina, like the rest of the American South, has made considerable progress since the days of legalised discrimination and segregation. But the historical legacy of its race problems continues to impact on contemporary politics.

From margins to mainstream

When photographs of Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag were released, they renewed a long-running debate about what many regard as a symbol of unreconstructed white racism.

In January 2000, 46,000 people marched in protest at the continued display of the flag on the dome of the South Carolina State House in Columbia. That demonstration, along with an economic boycott of the state launched by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), prompted legislators to pass a bill to relocate the flag to a site in the state grounds. The same year, public pressure led South Carolina to finally recognise Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday – the last state in the Union to do so.

But it was only after the 2015 church shooting that state officials consented to the complete removal of the rebel flag.

Race also looks set to be a big influence in this year’s South Carolina presidential primary. While the junior US Senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott, is a black Republican, African Americans are expected to turn out in overwhelming numbers for the Democrats, and more than 55% of the Democratic voting base in South Carolina is black.

Hillary Clinton badly needs to mobilise that vote in order to secure an emphatic victory in the Democratic primary and fire up what momentum she seems to have regained by defeating her rival Bernie Sanders in Nevada. She will hope that a win will prove she still has an impermeable “firewall” across the southern states, shutting the Vermont senator out of the race.

Sanders has recently secured some endorsements from prominent African American figures, but it would nonetheless be an astonishing feat if he manages to turn the tide of black votes that looks set to sweep Clinton to victory. Despite some searing critiques of her record on black issues, notably from academic and activist Michelle Alexander, opinion polls suggest that Clinton holds a 40-point lead among the state’s black Democratic voters.

The former secretary of state has vigorously courted African American voters with campaign commercials emphasising the need for new investments in jobs and education to overturn “generations of neglect”. Conversely, with gun control such a concern for many African Americans after the Emanuel church shooting, Sanders’ equivocation on the issue is a serious electoral obstacle.

In stark contrast, Republican candidates are out to woo an angry and alienated white electorate resentful of what they see as an unrepresentative and out of touch political elite.

Beyond black and white

While the historical fault line between black and white remains an important influence on contemporary politics in South Carolina, the racial dynamics of the state have in recent years become more complicated.

South Carolina has the second-fastest-growing Latino population of all the states, after Alabama. Republican candidates have been struggling to appeal to this emerging electorate because of their stance on immigration. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will face a serious challenge attracting Latino voters across the country. And while anti-immigrant firebrand frontrunner Donald Trump was long expected to have the biggest problem there, his showing in the Nevada caucuses saw him win with Latinos by a huge margin, as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio combined only just matched his performance there.

The race-baiting demagoguery of Trump in particular gives political succour to extremists who pose a violent threat to African Americans and Latinos. South Carolina was a predictably ugly stop on that journey. The state’s Republican leaders in the South fought a rearguard action against him, with the governor, Nikki Haley, eloquently arguing that “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist this temptation”.

But with Trump storming to victory in both South Carolina and in the race for the nomination more generally, it remains to be seen whether reason will triumph over emotion.