Dixie dynamite

Most South Carolinians just wish the Confederate flag flap would go away.

Published January 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The South Carolina government has had a simple remedy at its disposal to end the controversy over the Confederate flag flying above its state capitol for years: Remove Old Dixie and place it in memorial on the Statehouse grounds. But it's taken a boycott by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a hotly contested presidential campaign, intense national media scrutiny and a mob of protesters to get, it appears, the state's legislators to finally budge.

Gov. Jim Hodges has been meeting with key legislators, and a resolution may be at hand in a matter of weeks, not months, according to a senior staffer. Though 34 of 65 House Republicans vowed early last week not to discuss the flag issue until the boycott is lifted, moderate Republicans are eager for a compromise. The divisive terms of an agreement -- like where the flag will be housed and what will happen to other Confederate vestiges such as building and street names in the future -- remain unsettled, but major players on both sides of the flag controversy want to bring it to a close.

Why would a state that has flown the Confederate flag for almost 40 years now
suddenly be inclined to take it down? A windfall of negative publicity surrounding the NAACP's boycott, especially in the national media, is bringing the state -- or at least its reputation -- to its knees.

"One thing you don't want is negative publicity," says Al Parish, an economic forecaster at Charleston Southern University.

And the bad publicity hasn't been directed exclusively at South Carolina. Leading Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain -- for whom victory in the South Carolina primary is a crucial electoral strategy -- have also taken hits. McCain, famously, waffled last week, calling the flag "offensive" one day and part of the state's "heritage" the next, and Bush said he wouldn't fly the flag in Texas, but trusted South Carolinians to make their own decision about it. But the candidates' overtures to South Carolina Republicans didn't play well with the rest of the country, where both were hammered by the press.

The flag flap -- which has been simmering since 1994 when the state House killed a Senate initiative to remove it -- re-emerged in the national consciousness six months ago when the NAACP announced a boycott of the state. Since then, dozens of important state institutions -- from city governments to religious organizations to universities -- have asked legislators to lower the flag. Even conservative institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Baptist Convention now support a compromise.

And most South Carolinians are following suit. A recent poll conducted by Clemson University political scientist David Woodard found that 67 percent of regular voters like the proposal to move
the Confederate flag to a monument on the Statehouse grounds. Woodard believes
this majority has always existed, even though radicals and reactionaries have driven the debate from the fringes. The difference today, Woodard says, is that moderates who heretofore had no strong feelings about the flag now want it to disappear.

Monday, thousands took to the streets in Columbia for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march to press legislatures to remove the flag, illustrating how deeply the issue has galvanized South Carolina politics.

While most believe South Carolina can escape the NAACP boycott economically unscathed in the short term, the long-term prospects seem bleaker. South Carolina is a state on the move. Its beaches are popular with vacationers from all over the world, and industry is flourishing in the northern part of the state, where Michelin, Honda, Bosch and BMW now operate factories. Business leaders worry that the flag controversy could poison the business environment.

"The typical suburban voter sees this thing as bad for business," says Bill Moore, a
political scientist at the College of Charleston.

Charleston Southern University's Parish predicts the boycott itself will not significantly impede the state economy because its impact will be too diffuse. A similar successful boycott of Arizona in 1993 was focused specifically on relocating the Super Bowl (because Arizona did not observe Martin Luther King Day at the time), but the South Carolina boycott urges organizations to hold conventions and meetings in other states. A convention here and a meeting there is not going to
strangle the state's booming economy.

The only hard statistics available come from the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, which estimates the capital city has lost $2.5 million to the boycott. Tourist spots like
Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach -- all popular destinations for conventioneers -- have probably lost more.

Hunter Howard, president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, concedes that the
boycott is the main reason the business community is encouraging the state to take the flag down. Howard believes companies who might otherwise set up shop in South Carolina might be scouting locations in other states because of the controversy.

South Carolina has long prided itself on its race relations. There was less resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the state in comparison to the protests and riots that took place in states like Alabama and Mississippi, where governors stood in schoolhouse doors and civil rights workers were killed by police. But in recent years, a string of incidents -- black church
burnings and the infamous Redneck Shop in Manning, and now the Confederate
flag rhetoric -- have clouded the state's race record, reconnecting modern day South Carolina to an Old South that most South Carolinians want nothing to do with.

Ironically, it's the most adamant supporters of the flag who seem to be
doing the most to get it taken down, who in their fervor to preserve Old Dixie have fueled the maelstrom of negative publicity the state has garnered in the national media. A turning point came a week ago, when a crowd at the Republican debate raucously booed MSNBC
anchor Brian Williams for asking George W. Bush if the flag offended him. The crowd had the look of a lynch mob; and Williams actually looked a little rattled. The next day, state Sen. Arthur Ravenel raged against the "National Association of Retarded People." Every such outburst only serves to
strengthen the resolve of the moderates to salvage South Carolina's
reputation by removing the flag.

The question now seems to be whether middle-of-the-road flag supporters can
find a way to bring down the flag while still saving face. Jack Bass, professor at the College of Charleston, believes the NAACP is very deliberately not stepping up the boycott, as they had threatened, to give key Republicans room to breathe.

"A clear signal of a developing consensus is that the NAACP did not escalate the boycott," Bass says. "What that signals is an implicit understanding to give Republican moderates in the
legislature a chance to work themselves into a politically acceptable

But in the end, the flag will come down. And
life in South Carolina will go on. As David Woodard puts it: "It isn't like you're trying to redo the tax code. All you've got to do is take down a flag."

By Jeremy Derfner

Jeremy Derfner is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.

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