Charleston and the crucible of race and class

June 22, 2015

Lee Sustar explains how South Carolina's legacy of racism and repression--continuing to this day--created the conditions for a massacre in an African American church.

THE MASS murder of nine African Americans--killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by avowed white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof--is another atrocity in a centuries-long history of racist violence aimed at terrorizing Black people, from their days in slavery to their efforts to organize politically and join labor unions, right up to the present day.

Roof's murderous actions show the connection between the openly racist terror of the old Jim Crow and the bland, bureaucratic justifications for the mass incarceration of African American men and racist police murders that author Michelle Alexander calls the "New Jim Crow."

These days, racist violence in South Carolina is mostly meted out by law enforcement--like the April 4 shooting of an unarmed African American man, Walter Scott, in North Charleston. If Roof's racist comments and casual discussion of his plans to murder Blacks didn't seem to stand out, it's because such sentiments aren't so far removed from everyday discussion in a system where police have so dehumanized Blacks that they can be routinely gunned down, armed or not--not just in the South, but across the U.S.

Parishioners at the Emanuel AME church mourn the victims of the massacre
Parishioners at the Emanuel AME church mourn the victims of the massacre

The mass murder may have been shocking, but Roof's embrace of racist violence can't really be any surprise. After all, South Carolina enshrines white supremacy by keeping the Confederate battle flag flying outside the statehouse.

But the Confederate flag is only a symbol of the deeply rooted racism that shapes South Carolina to this day--not just in the politics of the dominant, right-wing Republicans, but in constraining the lives of African Americans and lowering the living standards of workers.

And that's exactly what has made South Carolina a magnet for big transnational corporations in recent years. Corporate human relations managers have taken the place of the now-departed textile bosses who used racist terror in the Jim Crow segregation era to keep South Carolina nearly union-free--which it remains to this day.

This is the context for racist violence in South Carolina, whether it comes at the hands of a white supremacist like Roof or a cop in North Charleston. It persists not because of some blind historical inertia 150 years after the end of the Civil War, but because the conditions that give rise to this violence continue to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, even in 21st century America.

CERTAINLY, SOUTH Carolina's image has changed. Charleston, half Black a generation ago, is now a two-thirds white city. African Americans were priced out of the housing market when gentrifiers moved in, drawn to the centuries-old buildings, with world-class restaurants down the block.

Of course, Charleston can't really hide its history. The city's central role in the slave trade gets a mention on the main tourism website. Fort Sumter, where secessionists fired the first shots of the Civil War, is another stop on the tour.

But all that is safely in the past of what is now a cosmopolitan, lifestyle-focused city, where a pricey Lululemon yoga clothing store sits a short walk from the Old Slave Mart Museum.

Still, it isn't just highly paid professionals and foodies who are flocking to Charleston and its surroundings. South Carolina's low union density--the percentage of workers in unions--along with low labor costs has attracted big investments in recent decades.

As early as the 1960s, South Carolina began advertising its low wages and weak unions to manufacturers in the North and internationally, even as the state's traditionally dominant textile industry declined. The strategy worked. The German chemical giant Hoechst came first, followed by tire giant Michelin, auto parts maker Bosch, shoemaker Adidas and then Hitachi.

The next wave of investment came in the 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provided foreign auto manufacturers with a powerful financial incentive to build cars in the U.S. to avoid high tariffs. As the New York Times reported in 1993, German automakers were attracted by labor costs that were half the level in Germany:

BMW A.G., after scouring the world, has chosen a 900-acre stretch of red clay halfway between Spartanburg and Greenville to build a car assembly plant. The attraction: promises of an eager, technically trained workforce, the proximity of both the port of Charleston and numerous automotive suppliers, tax incentives and a favorable climate.

The other attractions: tax credits, including a big giveaways on property taxes and reductions in the corporate income tax rates to the lowest in the Southeast and one of the lowest in the U.S. That's why BMW doubled down in 2014 with a $1 billion, two-year investment in its assembly plant to increase its capacity by 50 percent. For its part, Honda makes all-terrain vehicles in the state. Just this May, Volvo Cars, now owned by a Chinese company, announced that it would build a $500 million plant near Charleston.

The issue of racial discrimination in hiring periodically dogged employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued BMW in 2013 for using criminal background checks as a reason to fire African American workers.

SOUTH CAROLINA'S validation as a top-tier site for manufacturing came in 2011, when Boeing began building its most advanced airliner, the 787, in a new plant in North Charleston, where the population is 47 percent African American, 10 percent Latino and 41 percent white.

Company officials claimed they made the move just to save on labor costs--but they've been fighting to keep what is Boeing's first nonunion commercial airline assembly plant union-free. In 2013, the company threatened to move production of another jet from unionized plants in Washington state to North Charleston unless the International Association of Machinists accepted huge concessions. This year, Boeing announced that it would build the 737 in another nonunion plant in North Charleston.

While old industrial centers like Detroit or Gary, Indiana, have witnessed a massive loss of manufacturing jobs, South Carolina is showing a net gain factory employment, even during the Great Recession. The workers, employed mainly in new plants, are highly productive, with output per employee increasing 48.7 percent from 2002 to 2012.

Today, South Carolina ranks 10th among all states in terms of manufacturing as a percentage of total economic output--a notch below Ohio and eight spaces higher than Illinois.

But the benefits skew to the top. The state has the ninth-highest poverty rate in the U.S.--18.6 percent in 2013--a figure that increased even as manufacturing rebounded after the recession. That same year, the state's median household income ranked 40th in the U.S.

One study ranked South Carolina as one of the 10 worst states in which to make a living, owing to persistently high unemployment rates and low wages. So it will come as no surprise that just 2.2 percent of South Carolina workers are members of unions. Only neighboring North Carolina, at 1.9 percent, is lower.

THE MISERABLE conditions for South Carolina workers are what keeps capital flowing into the state. But another big magnet for manufacturing investors--particularly the big transnational corporations--is the Port of Charleston, the fourth-busiest container port in the country.

But the Port of Charleston also presented an obstacle to South Carolina state officials willing to go to any length to accommodate new manufacturing investors. In a state where unions barely exist, there was a very strong one on the docks: International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) Local 1422.

Like most of the ILA locals in the South and along the Gulf Coast, Local 1422 is virtually all African American--continuing a tradition of Black workers on the waterfront that goes back to the days of slavery.

That's why it was no coincidence that, on January 20, 2000, a Republican state attorney general named Charlie Condon, who was then running for governor, took it upon himself to send in 600 police in riot gear and heavily armed speedboats to break up an ILA picket line against a ship unloading with nonunion labor. The confrontation provoked by Condon's police resulted in the arrest of four African American members of Local 1422-- Kenneth Jefferson, Peter Washington, Elijah Ford and Ricky Simmons. A fifth, Jason Edgerton, a member of ILA Local 1771, was also arrested.

Condon obtained indictments for the men on felony riot charges and vowed that they would get "jail, jail and more jail." While awaiting trial, the five were put under house arrest from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., unless they were working or attending union meetings.

Condon was doing what South Carolina employers and politicians have done since the end of the Civil War--playing the race card. ILA Local 1422 played a leading role in the movement that forced the removal of the Confederate flag from over the state Capitol building itself--though it was moved nearby. The union led a mass anti-flag march of 47,000 people, just days before the police attack on the ILA picket line.

What Condon didn't expect was the national and international campaign of support for the Charleston Five. Days after the police attack, members of the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union were on the scene. they began raising funds that would total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dockworkers' unions from Spain to Denmark vowed that they wouldn't touch any cargo loaded by nonunion labor in Charleston.

ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley and other local union leaders toured the U.S., Europe and even South Africa to build support, as part of a labor solidarity effort in which this writer participated. In November 2001, Condon withdrew from the case, and the house arrest was lifted shortly afterward in a rare big victory for organized labor.

The campaign to defend the Charleston Five brought into the open the dynamics of race, class and labor in South Carolina.

Local 1422, a force on the waterfront and an important institution in both the wider labor movement and the African American community, was bound to be targeted by employers and politicians who were beginning to taste the wealth and power that came with South Carolina's and Charleston's economic revival. Moreover, Local 1422's leading role in the fight to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings was bound to lead to a clash between the union and right-wing Republican politicians who routinely defend that symbol of white supremacy,

In the course of his many speeches to build support for the Charleston Five, Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley summed up the role of Black labor in Charleston and the challenge it poses for the goals of business-friendly, conservative Republicans, ready and willing to play the race card in their drive to eradicate unions entirely.

"When we came, we were the cargo," Riley told an audience of autoworkers in Michigan in the fall of 2001. "Now, we handle the cargo."

THE CONTINUITY that Riley described between the labor of enslaved Africans and that of the modern Black working class continues to shape the lives of African Americans, as Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrated in his powerful article making the case for reparations.

But perhaps nowhere else does that past weigh more on the present than in South Carolina. From the slave-owning planter class to contemporary capitalists and their mouthpieces among the political elite, the rulers of South Carolina have always feared the threat that African Americans posed to their interests and the social order they presided over.

The fear of South Carolina's old colonial planter class was rooted in the fact that enslaved people were an absolute majority of the population for more than 150 years. Slaves were forced to work in the rice fields in the malarial lowlands, where uncounted numbers were killed by disease. Historian Peter Wood cites a Swiss newcomer in 1737 who declared that "Carolina looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people."

South Carolina slaves were far more geographically concentrated than their counterparts in neighboring colonies--especially on the coastal plain, where they developed their own language, Gullah, a mixture of African languages and English, which survives today. As Wood explains:

[T]here existed a "critical mass" necessary for preserving and synthesizing traditions of behavior, speech and myth. There was a tendency toward social, and occasionally economic, self-sufficiency among Blacks as their numbers expanded. A voluntary separation from the white community went along with denser population, wider contacts and increasingly independent living quarters.

Along with this development came the growing importance of skilled African slave labor.

All this was threatening to the white minority, which in the course of the early 1700s ratcheted up the level of repression, increasingly justifying its actions with ideas of African racial inferiority. In 1739, slaves calculated the balance of power and decided to take action in what became known as the Stono Rebellion. Some 65 people were killed in the uprising, 25 of them whites.

The rebels held out for a week, and attempts at insurrection continued sporadically for another two years, including a plan to seize Charleston that was betrayed by an informer. Rebels were usually executed on the spot, and their heads were often put on display to discourage further resistance.

The colonial administration responded with the Negro Act, legislation that spelled out strict control of slaves in South Carolina that would endure until the end of the Civil War more then a century later.

THAT OLD order came crashing down with the Union Army victory during the Civil War, culminating in Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman leading his famous march through the South, burning plantations and seizing property as slaves freed themselves.

The postwar military occupation of South Carolina and the rest of the South opened the way for freed slaves to be elected to office. When the South Carolina state legislature convened under a new constitution in 1868, 11 of 31 senators were Black. In the House, African Americans were in the majority, with 71 out of 124 seats.

For the deposed slave-owner class, which dominated the Democratic Party in the South, the rise of Black Republican elected officials represented everything they had tried to stop: a show of political strength, and even a measure of power, by former slaves.

Congress' enthusiasm for Reconstruction waned under the twin pressures of how to reorganize the South and deal with a restive new industrial working class in the North. In South Carolina, a former slave owner and Confederate general, Wade Hampton, mapped out a strategy for a political comeback for his class. He combined the language of reconciliation with reaching out to some Black Republicans, which helped him win the 1876 election. Afterward, he appointed African Americans to a variety of offices.

But the forces of white supremacy were organizing. White terrorist vigilantes, known as Red Shirts and led by a politician and landowner named Ben Tillman, murdered African Americans in large numbers during the course of the 1876 campaign to try to prevent them from voting.

But Black South Carolinians resisted. In the all-Black town of Hamburg, an African American militia was prepared to resist military-style confrontation. The town, writes historian Eric Foner, "was one of many centers of Reconstruction Black power," with several Civil War veterans playing important roles.

A dispute over a Black militia's Fourth of July parade led to a confrontation, during which the area's top Democratic official, Gen. Matthew C. Butler, organized hundreds of troops to attack the militia. Some 25 were captured; five were murdered on the spot by armed whites. The killers were later acquitted. As one eyewitness wrote, "If you can find words to characterize this atrocity and barbarism...your power of language exceeds mine." Gen. Butler, rather than being prosecuted for his crimes, was elected to the U.S. Senate by the "redeemed" South Carolina state legislature.

The situation in South Carolina was extreme but not unique. In a deal to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republicans kept control of the White House in return for an agreement to withdraw the U.S. Army from the former Confederacy. Without the support of the troops, the former slaves soon found the rights they had won were rolled back. The new Southern capitalist class used both the law and racist terrorism to intimidate Blacks.

The Populist movement of the 1890s initially united Black and white farmers--it held the promise of a challenge to poverty and inequality. In South Carolina, Ben Tillman curried favor with the farm vote by promising reform. Once in office, Tillman devoted himself to pushing through segregation laws. African Americans were effectively banned from voting, both by legal restrictions and the threat of lynching. The historian C. Vann Woodward noted that in 1898, a white mob burned a Black postmaster alive in his home and shot his family as they tried to escape. That same year, "white cap" riders stormed through Greenwood County, killing and terrorizing Blacks.

Tillman, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1895, took to the floor to boast of his political success in disenfranchising African Americans: "We [the white South Carolinians] took the government away. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them [Blacks]. We are not ashamed of it. We have done our best...We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them."

This apartheid setup survived intact in South Carolina and other Southern states for several more decades, despite the 1930s New Deal reforms of Franklin Roosevelt, who was unwilling to risk his political future by upsetting the Democrats' "Solid South."

When Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, desegregated the armed forces and took some hesitant steps to eliminate poll taxes used to stop Blacks from voting, a South Carolina politician once again stepped forward and gave a lead for the elites of the whole region.

Gov. Strom Thurmond challenged Truman for reelection on the States Rights Party ticket, known as the "Dixiecrats." Thurmond would later help lead the transition of other conservative Southern Democrats into the Republican Party in the aftermath of the civil rights movement victories in winning the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, passed in 1964 and 1965.

THE CLASS agenda behind South Carolina's violent imposition of Jim Crow segregation had been made starkly clear in 1934, when textile workers up and down the East Coast went on strike in the single biggest labor battle of that era.

Very few textile workers in South Carolina were Black--the employers enforced the color bar characteristic of the Jim Crow era. But white workers soon found themselves enduring the kind of repression that had long been familiar to African Americans. On September 6, 1934, strikers in the town of Honea Path faced sheriff's deputies and armed strikebreakers. The New York Times reported:

Without warning came the first shots, followed by many others, and for a few minutes there was bedlam. Striker after striker fell to the ground, with the cries of wounded men sounding over the field and men and women running shrieking from the scene.

The strike was crushed--and the labor movement in South Carolina has yet to recover from that defeat. So pervasive is the anti-union atmosphere in the state that a documentary about the struggle that appeared in 1994 was banned from South Carolina public television for years.

It fell to the civil rights movement to revive the struggle for change in the state. Once again, South Carolina distinguished itself with its racist violence.

When in 1968, students at the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg protested segregation at a local bowling alley, state police arrived on campus and started firing, killing three and wounding 30 others. The cops were charged but acquitted. The only person convicted in connection with the incident was Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Cleveland Sellers. The incident, writes historian Martha Biondi, spurred the Black Power movement on historically Black colleges across the U.S.

The following year, the civil rights struggle and a revived labor movement converged in Charleston, where more than 400 Black workers, almost all of them women, went on strike for more than three months. William McCord, the president of one of the struck hospitals, declared that he would not "turn a $25 million complex over to a bunch of people who don't have a grammar school education."

Management claimed that South Carolina's right-to-work laws effectively banned the union, and the governor intervened by sending in the National Guard. Big protests, often led by national civil rights figures, drew thousands. Police responded with mass arrests. Pressure from the federal government on civil rights violations forced the bosses to make a deal. But the union, isolated, fell apart in a year.

The defeat of the Charleston hospital strike and the dispersal of the civil rights movement gave the South Carolina elite some breathing room. With Black political energy focused on electing city, state and federal representatives, the Republicans concentrated on statewide offices by basing themselves on a conservative and often openly racist white electorate.

To be sure, the image changed to attract outside investment--Strom Thurmond was portrayed as a quaint sideshow until he died in office in 2003. Meanwhile, Republican party bosses cultivated the likes of Nikki Haley, a woman of Indian descent, and backed her successful run for governor in 2010.

But now comes the racist massacre in Charleston, unearthing South Carolina's horrific history of racist violence and oppression. Dylann Roof consciously acted in that tradition. Like the murderous Red Shirts who killed and maimed to enforce Jim Crow segregation, Roof deliberately attempted to terrorize the African American population into submission.

And if Roof felt justified in gunning down unarmed Black people, it's in no small part because the shooting deaths of African Americans have become so commonplace at the hands of police. In the South Carolina of 2015--just as in 1915 or 1715--Black lives are expendable.

That's why the many calls for justice in Charleston are going beyond Roof, and they won't stop with the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. This is not a protest movement about the actions of a racist gunman, but the renewal of the long struggle for racial justice and equality.

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