Fighting Racism

The long march


I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don t think it will be based on the color of the skin." — Malcolm X

Malcolm X Malcolm is watching from two walls. He's staring out from a poster by the copier and from another one tacked to the low wall that separates the front office from the back. The red one says HUMAN RIGHTS — BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

    The banner in the window facing Taylor Street says Rise Up. Since it went up in midsummer, it has attracted attention in the neighborhood, has caused the curious to wander in to see what's up. And, sometimes, to hang out when they find out what is.

    The small office at the edge of Allen University recently found itself at the center of one of the most celebrated efforts in years of wrestling with this state's most slippery of sins: racism.

    It was from here that last month's Emergency Conference on Racism took shape. The three-day event, which began on Oct. 24 in Columbia, was a product of the National Council of Churches, a New York-based group that led the effort to collect money for the churches burned in a recent string of arson attacks across the country.

    The burnings included a corridor of destruction along I-95 in South Carolina. More churches were torched here than anywhere else: 42 since 1991, 25 of them with predominately black congregations.

    While hard numbers are elusive, clearly some of the attacks were race-based, the desecration the work of white supremacists who scrawled racial slurs across the chaos they made.

    In May, the NCC — whose membership represents some 52 million Christians, most of them white — issued a report on the church fires, citing a "pattern of hate."

    The NCC joined forces with the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which tracks white supremacist activity, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Together they investigated and publicized the church burnings, pushing the sorry statistics into the national spotlight.

    Over the summer, the group toured the sites of burned churches and traveled the country calling press conferences and staging events with luminaries the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.

    Led by the Rev. Charles Mac Jones, the charismatic pastor of St. Stephen's Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., it was an enormously successful campaign. The NCC's Burned Churches Project was the salve the country needed to soothe its collective shame.

    In true American spirit, the nation opened its wallet.


    Not knowing what else to do, families, churches, businesses and foundations sent money. But as the donations mounted, so did criticism that the NCC was capitalizing on a national tragedy.

    The NCC began catching heat for characterizing the arsons as a national racist conspiracy and for allegations that it was mishandling the millions of dollars it had collected.

    The Wall Street Journal reported that the NCC had raised nearly $9 million, and that contributions were pouring in at about $100,000 a day. By the NCC's own estimate, $8.5 million would cover the rebuilding effort.

    Finding itself with a financial windfall and a bruised public image, the NCC announced it would funnel the excess funds into projects to "fight racism." It would begin by calling a national march to raise awareness.

    It was then that the CC turned its attention to South Carolina. What better backdrop to stage its event? More churches burned here than anywhere else. It is the only state that flies the Confederate flag above its State House. It is a state, in fact, that wears its racial animosity like a second skin.

    The NCC hired South Carolina native Kevin Gray, a former aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to organize a local body to plan the march.

    Over the summer and into the fall, an ever-changing group of staff, volunteers, grassroots activists and church leaders met to map a plan. The march would begin at Mt. Zion AME in Greeleyville, destroyed last year by members of the KKK, and travel from burned church to burned church, mobilizing a campaign for racial justice along the way.


    But almost before it got started, the march effort derailed.


Jackie Workman, Kamau Marcharia and Jessie Turner (from left) talk about how to fund a new organizing effort in the Rise Up office in Columbia

In August, local organizers from the religious community asked that the event be put on hold because they did not have enough time to get the churches on board for an October march.

    "They've had 300 years," Gray argued.

    But it was not that simple; protocol had not been followed. The NCC had failed to contact South Carolina's top church leaders or the pastors from any of the burned churches. It was bad form, and made for bad feelings.

    The Rev. Terrance Mackey, pastor of the burned church in Greeleyville, said the NCC didn't contact him until Sept. 18. "The pastors should have been the first ones called. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late."

    In spite of their predicament, the group voted to continue with the march as planned. But days later, the NCC announced that the march would be delayed after all and that the October date would be used for a conference instead.

    It was a move that didn't sit well with local organizers. The Rev. Joe Darby, pastor of St. Phillips AME Church in Eastover and head of the S.C. Coalition of Black Church Leaders, put it this way: "Paternalism is not good, regardless of the plantation it comes off of."

    The NCC's decision to override local consensus fractured the sense of unity the group had struggled to build. It was from the beginning a fragile construction.

    The march had been initiated by the church, by and large a conservative body, but it had stirred grassroots interest. To the church's call for a national march came the unexpected support from activists who, frankly, made some of those at the table uncomfortable: gays, feminists and others perceived as political radicals. (Gray said one pastor had grumbled to him privately, "I'm not marching with a bunch of people in pink tutus.")

    This was not shaping up to be the march the national leadership had envisioned. And while the NCC had promised local leaders "ownership," it was clear who was calling the shots.

    Gray wanted to quit but felt trapped. "I would have been seen as a spoiler," he said.

    In the month before the conference, relationships deteriorated to the point that leadership factions were no longer speaking.

    "This thing right from the start ruptured and never healed," said NCC spokesperson Herb Boyd. "The gulf of misunderstanding just increased."

    But they were too invested to bail out. The show would go on.


    And so it did.

    To the organizers' great relief, the conference generated considerable press. But, in spite of the coverage, turnout was low. The Emergency Conference on Racism attracted 125 registrants, according to the NCC.

    "It must not have been much of an emergency," said a commentator on National Public Radio the evening the conference closed.

    "When it was all said and done," complaind one participant, "more was said than done."

    After three days of talking, no agenda was set, no projects drafted, no strategy debated, no long-term goals made, no infrastructure established.

    Instead, there were photo ops, sound bites and a press eager to bear good news.

    "It was sweet enough to give you social diabetes," said the Rev. Darby.

    He said he wished there had been less listening and more sharing of opinions and ideas. "Moving beyond the rhetoric, that's the hard part.

    Participants criticized the lack of substance almost as much as they did the appearance of Gov. David Beasley, who spoke at a closed session of ecumenical leaders. It was ironic, they said, and inappropriate.

    "Beasley is no friend of people fighting racism," said Kamau Marcharia, director of S.C. United Action in Orangeburg. "He came in to posture — didn't have to answer any questions — said what he said and walked out. Nobody needs that kind of bullshit. The church is in bed with the oppressor."

    The Rev. Darby objected to the format. "I would have loved the governor to sit at the table, stay for the daytime session, maybe get chewed on, maybe chew some people out. That's dialogue."

    The Rev. Gail Anderson Holness, who served as chair of the local organizing committee, defended the governor's appearance. "We couldn't exclude someone based on their political beliefs."

    But some critics say that is exactly what happened — not to the governor, but to others who wanted to participate. Charges surfaced that gays and women, while not excluded outright, were marginalized.

    Staff member Leslie Minard sent a letter, with the endorsement of the Rev. Holness, to the NCC charging sexism in the office. She never got a reply.

    At the conference, workshops addressing "diversity" were included, but it was clear to those attending that it was a token effort. The women's issues session was led by a North Carolina activist ill-prepared to moderate a thoughtful discussion. The session attracted six women, four of them white.

    The workshop on gays in the black community was led by Mandy Carter, another North Carolina activist. She was disappointed with the turnout but was pleased to even be included. "The word lesbian' was in the program," she said. "That's progress."

    She was sorry but not surprised to see a familiar hierarchy, even at what was supposed to be a progressive event "It's women who do the hard work and it's menfolk who are always grabbing the headlines," Carter said. "That's got to change."

    Tanya Harrel, an activist in the gay community in South Carolina who helped organize the conference, takes comfort in the quiet gains she made. "I may not have been the favorite player," she said, "but I was still on the team."

    She thinks the door opened just a crack. "I saw people speaking to each other who normally wouldn't."


    But for all the talking,

    at the close of the conference it was unclear whether there was even going to be a march.

    "A march?" said one participant, "I left wondering if there was even going to be a conference."

    After spending $60,000 and months of planning, the obvious question is whether it was worth it.

    "Freedom is not free," said the Rev. Holness. "What the NCC did was an excellent job."

    The Rev. Leo Woodberr, another organizer, doesn't buy that. "The conference was a national public relations campaign for the NCC. It was just a way to justify their organization and the money they collected."

    Gray agrees. "All the NCC wanted was pretty pictures. They came in, got what they wanted, and left."

    But staff organizer Minard said that criticism is unfair. She believes the NCC's motives were sound, and blames any failures of the conference on poor local leadership.

    Minard thinks the conference was a step in the right direction on a very long road. "A lot of people say it was a bad thing, but those people are all on the inside," she said. "The people who came to the conference — the people I saw — left feeling jacked up that something was about to happen."

    Unfortunately, those who left the conference ready to do something had nowhere to go with their good intent.


    It is the first workday since the conference, and the phones in the Rise Up office are quiet. In fact, the phones are dead.

    "They got turned off because the NCC didn't pay the bill," says staff member Jackie Workman, who's adding by hand a list of figures on a legal pad. "They're talking about coming to get the computers."

    Workman and Jessie Turner are subdued. They and the rest of the staff are owed several weeks in back pay. After months of having their lives bound up by the organizing work, they don't know what happens now.

    The reporters are gone. The NCC is gone. The money is gone.

    Relationships have been strained, some to the breaking point. Fingers are pointing in all directions to cast blame for what went wrong at the conference, which the NCC's Don Rojas characterized to one organizer as "the biggest embarrassment of my life."

    Boyd describes the damage between the NCC and local organizers as "irreparable." He defends the decision to close the office as unavoidable, "budgetary constraints being what they are. The office has outlived its usefulness to us."

    Boyd says the NCC will not be part of a South Carolina march. "We have been really abused by the folks down there," he says. The Rev. Jones and CCR's Ron Daniels did not return phone calls. A call to Rojas was answered by Boyd.

    The staff, meanwhile, remains committed to forging something useful from their months of work. "We're not going to quit, even if we don't have any money," Turner vows. "We have put too much time and effort into it just to see it die because the NCC pulled out."

    For now, the office is open. Sort of. The staff is working without pay, but the phones are back on. Allen University has said they may continue to use the office for organizing efforts. Some members of the original organizing committee have begun meeting with the newly formed S.C. Coalition of Burned Churches to talk about where they go from here.

    The Committee for Racial Justice has been formed to take up where the NCC left off. The committee is struggling to ensure that plans for a march are a secondary consideration to what happens afterwards.

    "We have to have a clear idea of where we're going," warns the Rev. Woodberry, chair of the new committee.

    Some want to go ahead with a march, possibly in April to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

    Others think the time for marching has passed, and that it is time to create new vehicles for change.

    "If I'm marching I want to know why we're marching and where we're going," Turner says. "I want to see the root causes of racism addressed. By the time we get to march it should be a celebration.

    Still, there is a shared urgency that something must be done. The day after the conference, in fact, three black teens in Pelion were shot at rndom by two white men in a pickup truck who allegedly had just attended a Confederate flag rally.

    The need for fighting back is stronger than ever, activists say. This time they vow not to rely on the church or out-of-state organizations to lead them.

    The progressive community has the money to fund a movement, Gray says; it shouldn't have to wait for tragedy to get involved.

    Dr. Jan Love, a local organizer, says the conference was an education. "One thing that is clear about South Carolina is that we lack an over-arching coalition organization," she says. "This has been a painful experience in understanding that."

    Love thinks the next step is building a base, and that takes patience. "It's slow, tough, plodding work. But once it's done it pays off long into the future."

    That kind of effort will need people who aren't in it to make a buck or make a name, but to make a difference.

    The Rev. Mackey worries that we have grown complacent since the civil rights struggle of the 60s. "We've taken a lot of things for granted and stopped trying to heal the wound. We kept putting Band Aids on it. Now they're coming off and the sore is exposed. We need to treat the sore and begin to heal together." b

    Want to do something? Call 803-251-0244


© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 11/26/96