Latest Modjeska School graduates already putting new skills to work

These students (plus a few who couldn’t make it to the graduation party) have been meeting in Columbia at the historic Seibels House twice a month since March to learn a people’s history of South Carolina and tools to be more effective community organizers.

On Sunday, a third class matriculated from the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, a project of the SC Progressive Network launched in 2015 to help build and sustain a state-based movement for social change.

As they picked up their diplomas, the graduates shared their thoughts about the experience.

Lauren Greene said, “This class absolutely exceeded my expectations – the material, the presentations, the guest speakers. It was really phenomenal. There was so much I didn’t even know I didn’t know.”

Carol Singletary said, “The school helped me understand why we are where we are now and why we have not gone as far as we should have. I met some wonderful people who are as committed as I am to bring about change and continuing to work together to make sure that some good things happen in South Carolina.”

Graduate Carol Singletary and Network Co-chair Marjorie Hammock

Richard Sylvester hadn’t planned on taking the course, but after dropping his wife off at the first class and seeing the curriculum, he decided to enroll, too. “I was hesitant to come at the beginning because I knew I would learn things that would just make me mad. I hope I can do something to help rectify the things that are less than they could be”

His wife, Shannon Herin, thanked him “for sticking with me. That made it extra special. It was an amazing curriculum – and if you’re like me you will still be reading that curriculum for many years. This is a very smart community of activists because we’re not just angry. This is a group that wants to get smart, stay smart, and to be intentional about their actions. That’s a great strength.”

She said the day included a personal point of celebration. “This little blue dress was worn on that day in November when I went to vote for the first female president. You can still see the tear stains on it. I put this on the back of my door, and wasn’t going to put it back in the closet until I did something. So it means a lot that I’m wearing it today.”

Shannon Herin (center), her mother Martha, and fellow graduate Annette Bethel

“The school opened my eyes to the fact that it’s no accident that we’re in the situation we’re in; it’s intentional,” Melissa Watson said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re not doing enough in the community, particularly when you compare yourself to the big names on the national stage. To see local icons’ work motivated me to want to work.”

Melissa Watson

Longtime political activist Tim Liszewski said, “Knowing there are people younger than I am who are actually taking up the cause gives me hope and makes me less angry. Let’s make some change that lasts.”

Donald Martin is not a South Carolina native, so was glad to learn more about its history. “I grew up in the era of Jim Crow, so that wasn’t surprising to me; what was surprising is to look across the room and see young people and older people, and I thought we wouldn’t still be talking about this. It just shows that the struggle is not over. I feel the spirit of Modjeska Simkins inside me. That’s why I came to join this movement – and this is a movement.”

Sherri Simmons said, “It was a great opportunity. I was never bored. It has been an eye-opening experience to learn about the state.”

Thomas Hammond said his father gave him the money to take the course. “I wanted to talk about him because the other thing he gave me was understanding how important it is to know your history, where you come from. So taking this class and being involved with the Progressive Network has been an extension of what my dad gave me. It would be easy to be ashamed about where you come from, but I feel like if you make the effort to overcome your history then you don’t have to feel ashamed.”

Beverly Frierson and her sister Delaine Frierson took the class together. They have long been very active in the Democratic Party. The class made them better understand the systemic flaws within the party structure, and the need for a more strategic approach to progressive politics in the Palmetto State.

“Throughout history,” Beverly Frierson said, “the powers that be have promoted an us-against-them philosophy for the benefit of the rich and powerful. It’s so ingrained that either people are too disillusioned to take action, or they act against their own interests or – even worse – sometimes they form alliances with the oppressor.”

She said the class made her feel empowered. “The most impactful thing to me is understanding that human beings are capable of transformation. We have to have faith in the capacity of people to change. It starts with us.”

Network Director Brett Bursey who, along with Modjeska School Faculty Coordinator and USC’s Caroliniana Library historian Graham Duncan, constructed the curriculum, said the school has been one of the most gratifying and promising projects he’s worked on in his 49 years as an organizer. “The Modjeska School is meeting a critical need for progressive leadership at just the right time,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with the students’ understanding that a revolution of social values is a lifetime commitment. They are the agents of change.”

Before leaving, the class split into groups to talk about next steps for the projects they have committed to working on in the coming months. Congratulations to them all!

We thank guest speakers Dr. Wil Goins, Dr. Bobby Donaldson, Tom and Judy Turnipseed, Tootsie Holland, Dr. Hoyt Wheeler, Lewis Pitts, and Jack Bass. Thanks, too, to former Modjeska School graduates Kyle Criminger and Daniel Deweese, who volunteered to set up and break down each session.

Erica von Shenk and her daughter Scarlet Baker

Class war and cultural revolution: a conversation

As part of the Modjeska Simkins School‘s Sunday Social series, the public is invited to hear recovering attorney Lewis Pitts on June 4 at the Seibels House, 1601 Richland St., downtown Columbia between 4 and 6pm. Pitts is a dynamic speaker with an impressive resume and a trove of stories from the trenches. 

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Lewis Pitts was so dismayed by the legal profession that, after 43 years of practice, he asked the NC State Bar to allow him to resign. He was disturbed by the growing tendency of attorneys and law firms to put profit before the people they were supposed to serve.

“My resignation is because I see an overall breach by the Bar as a whole of the most basic of professional conduct and ethics such that I do not want be be associated with the Bar,” Pitts wrote in a 2014 letter to the Bar. “I do not mean to be mean or flippant. The ministry of law has been a powerful force in my life and I have had the pleasure of working with many terrific people in pursuit of justice — lawyers and non-lawyers. I want these parting words to stir your minds and hearts into reflection, boldness, and transformational action.”

The case went to the state Supreme Court, where Pitts was granted the exit he sought.

A South Carolina native, Pitts graduated from Wofford College and USC’s law school. He practiced in DC and spent nearly 20 years at Legal Aid of North Carolina, where he founded the statewide children’s unit and fought the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Pitts was SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey’s lawyer after he was arrested for threatening President George Bush with a “No War for Oil” sign. (Read about the case in this blog post.)

Lewis Pitts (left), Brett Bursey, and attorney Jay Bender

Bursey and Lewis go way back. Pitts represented the Natural Guard protesters at the Bomb Plant (Savannah River Site), and decided to go to jail with them. He was an attorney in Karen Silkwood’s wrongful death suit, took part in civil disobedient arrests at nuclear facilities around the country, was lead attorney in the successful civil suit against the Klan and Nazis for the murder of five Greensboro activists in 1979.

“From my earliest days as a lawyer, I have been concerned that the role of our profession has been to serve and protect the political and business establishment and not to uphold rule of law,” Pitts wrote in his resignation letter. (Read the letter here.)

He told a Greensboro reporter last year that there was no single incident that made him want to step away. “It was like the hypocrisy was eating me physically and psychologically.” He called his appeal “a desperate plea” in “some explosive times when the rule of law really needs to mean something. I guess it’s time for our profession to undergo a moral checkup.”

Lewis is in Columbia to teach a class of the Modjeska Simkins School.

Government watchdog John Crangle offers dim view of Quinn hearing

John Crangle spent all day Tuesday at the hearing on Rep. Rick Quinn’s motion to remove special prosecutor David Pascoe from the criminal case against him by alleging that Pascoe has a conflict of interest. Crangle, the SC Progressive Network‘s government relations director and author of the book Lost Trust, has become the go-to guy for reporters covering the growing public corruption scandal at the State House.

Crangle suspects that Quinn’s high-priced attorneys didn’t have any law or evidence on their side to prove Pascoe has a conflict of interest, so they spent hours arguing that SLED agents may have improperly seized evidence from Quinn’s office.

Last week, Quinn was indicted on two counts of misconduct in office for not reporting more than $4.5 million in payments he received between January 1999 and this April. He also is accused of funneling more than $270,000 in House Republican Caucus funds into his father’s consulting firm, Richard Quinn and Associates.

Quinn has called the investigation a “partisan witch hunt,” and claims that Pascoe’s political ambition causes the conflict of interest.

In this brief update, Crangle says that the SLED search had no relevance to Quinn’s motion to dismiss Pascoe, and he was surprised that the judge tolerated the drawn-out testimony. The judge promised a ruling on Quinn’s motion in two weeks.

Click HERE to listen to Crangle’s short update from the inside.

John Crangle speaks at the SC Progressive Network’s May 17 forum on political corruption in the Palmetto State. With him on the panel are (from left, Sen. Mike Rose, Ret., WIS-TV reporter Jack Kuenzie, and Rick Brundrett with The Island Packet. See more photos from the packed-house event in our photo album.

Forum to explore causes and cures of SC political corruption

May 17 • 6-9pm

Marriott, 1200 Hampton, downtown Columbia

Free and open to all.

Is political corruption endemic, or can it be treated? That’s the question at the center of a public forum on Wednesday that will offer three panel discussions with some of the state’s experts.

As yet another political scandal threatens a growing number of South Carolina lawmakers, it is clear that we have a problem. The bad news is that our system is broken. The good news is that we believe reform is possible if enough people demand it.

The SC Progressive Network has been working on reforms to reduce the causes of corruption for more than 20 years. We’ve concluded that unless we can make serious structural and cultural changes in the way we practice democracy in South Carolina, we will keep repeating the same patterns of abuse that will only further erode public trust.

It is no surprise that money and power are the interrelated causes of our lack of representative democracy and the resulting corruption.

Historically, our incumbent legislators, who win office with the existing rules and voters, have been disinclined to change a system that is working fine for them. They have resisted efforts to make it easier to vote, and ahve ignored legislation that would create a system of public financing for the General Assembly. A young Sen. Clementa Pinckney and Rep. Joe Neal were the bill’s prime sponsors, which has been introduced every session since 2000 but has yet to make it to the floor.

While voter participation continues to shrink, bills for universal voter registration have likewise languished without hearings. Last November, fewer than 14 percent of registered voters elected 77 percent (131) of the 170 members of the SC General Assembly. The winners in 94 of these districts faced no opposition at all, yet raised over $4 million. What did they do with all that money?

The purpose of the forum is to initiate an honest discussion about the state of our democracy in South Carolina. How did we get here? Whose interests are now being served? Can we reduce the influence of money in politics? Join us for a timely conversation. The event is free and open to all. RSVP/Share on Facebook.

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Welcome and statement of purpose: Marjorie Hammock and Kyle Criminger, SC Progressive Network Co-chairs

Panel I – Modern History of Political Corruption

Moderator: Jack Kuenzie, WIS-TV

Rick Bundrett, The Island Packet

John Monk, The State

John Crangle, SC Progressive Network

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, Ret.

Panel II – Causes of Corruption

Moderator: Ken W. Gaines, USC School of Law

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, Ret.

Cassie Cope, The State

Lynn Teague, League of Women Voters of SC

Ashley Landess, SC Policy Council

Brett Bursey, SC Progressive Network

Panel III – Reform is Possible!

Moderator: Brian McConchie, WACH-TV

Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, Ret.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, Ret.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland

Octavia Williams-Blake, Florence City Council

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg

Missed our spring gathering? Here’s the next best thing

South Carolina grassroots activists from across the state met in Columbia on April 15 for the SC Progressive Network‘s 21st annual spring gathering at Francis Burns United Methodist Church in Columbia. The turnout was tremendous, reflecting the collective anxiety since the election and the newfound energy of those ready to mobilize in defense of this country’s core democratic values.

See more photos in our album on Flickr.

It was a productive and inspriring day, thanks to our invited speakers and energetic participants. We left feeling proud of our organization and excited about the new leadership emerging to take us to the next level.

If you weren’t able to join us, here are some highlights.

Sunday Social series invites public to deeper dive into South Carolina history

As part of its commitment to broadening the study of history in South Carolina, the Modjeska Simkins School invites the public to its Sunday Socials, a series of presentations by some of our state’s finest teachers and writers. The free events are held 4-6pm at the Seibels House, 1601 Richland St., downtown Columbia.

The Modjeska School is a project of the SC Progressive Network.Call 803-808-3384 for details.

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April 23: 4-6pm – Revisiting SC’s Civil Rights Movement. USC professor and noted historian Bobby Donaldson will present film and photos tracing the 20th Century’s movement for civil rights in South Carolina.

Bobby Donaldson

April 30: 4-6pm – Labor and SC’s Vanished Union History. Screening of the documentary The Uprising of 34, followed by discussion led by Dr. Hoyt Wheeler. He will talk about the bloody history and lingering legacy of SC’s anti union laws. Katheryn Silva will talk about  race and labor in the 1900s.

Hoyt Wheeler

May 7 – 4-6pm – Screening of Orangeburg Massacre documentary. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Jack Bass was in Orangeburg that terrible night in 1968, and wrote the definitive book on the killings. After the film, Jack will offer comments and take questions.

Jack Bass

Family and colleagues of Rep. Joe Neal endorse House District 70 candidate Wendy Brawley

“The SC Progressive Legislative Caucus has picked Wendy Brawley as the best candidate to shoulder the heavy burden left by the death of our dearest friend and colleague Joseph Neal,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter announced at a State House press conference Thursday.

Representatives Cobb-Hunter and Neal worked closely for the 23 years they served together in the State House before Neal’s untimely death last month. The two founded the nonpartisan Progressive Legislative Caucus in 2015 to focus on promoting state policies that improve the lives of working people and their families – not just in rural, black and poor District 70 – but across the state. “Joe was a true and rare servant of the public,” Cobb-Hunter said, “and the Progressive Legislative Caucus is pleased to lend our support to Wendy Brawley, a true fighter and seasoned leader to take up Joe’s work.”

Neal’s older brother and a longtime Columbia physician Dr. Green B. Neal said, “Of all the candidates, Ms. Brawley is the one I saw over the years working with Joe and our community, and doing good without any expectation of reward.”

SC Progressive Network Executive Director Brett Bursey said, “Joe was the heart of our organization. He helped establish the Network, and was our strongest champion inside and outside of the legislature. He cannot be replaced, but we expect Ms. Brawley to keep true to his mission.”

Brawley said she was humbled and honored by the support. “Joe Neal dedicated his life to helping those who were often overlooked and lived in the shadows. He will be sorely missed, but he leaves with us an incredible legacy of servant leadership. I look forward to the opportunity to continue Rep. Joe Neal’s work of caring, compassionate and effective leadership,” she said.

Wendy Brawley

Modjeska School homework is a chance for all of us to get educated

The Modjeska Simkins School invites you to join the spring session by reading and watching from home. Class assignments and video clips are posted at our web site.

Bookmark the site, as material is being added every week. This is a tremendous resource. Please share with those interested in South Carolina history and its perplexing politics.

Here’s a clip of SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey welcoming the incoming class. The man he’s pointing to was stolen from his home in Congo and enslaved by the Taylor family – in whose home the Modjeska School is meeting.

John Crangle: This week in the State House

The SC Progressive Network has instituted a weekly briefing with our new government relations director, John Crangle. (Read about our good fortune in The State.)

The conference calls are open to members interested in keeping up with bills we are tracking in the State House. The calls are every Friday at 5:30pm, and last about a half-hour. To participate, send email to network@scpronet.com, and you will be sent the call-in number and code.

Friday’s call included discussion of these four items, summarized here by Network staff.

1. Legislators Water Down Money Laundering Law
Calling it “one of the more ludicrous events in the past week,” Crangle unpacked a story that involves House Judiciary subcommittee members realizing at the last minute that they were about to pass regulations to a statute that would criminalize legislators taking kickbacks – like those currently being investigated in association with Richard Quinn and Associates (RQA).

The money laundering law originally passed in 2016 with the intended purpose of criminalizing “illegally sourced money,” which the legislators took took to mean money from prostitution and drugs. When the legislature creates a law, the state agency charged with implementing it comes up with regulations to enforce it. In this case, it was Attorney General Alan Wilson’s job to submit the regs to the legislature for approval, but the AG’s office never got around to writing them. Crangle suggested the AG may have been distracted by the fact that he, his father, the former AG and current governor Henry McMaster all have given tons of money to RQA. Furthermore, Wilson appointed the special prosecutor that is digging into kickbacks from RQA to legislators and state agencies.

Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach), concerned about prostitutes and drugs on the Grand Strand, proposed an amendment to speed implementation of the money laundering law – before the regulations were written to implement the law. Clemmons’ amendment was on the agenda at the subcommittee meeting when a reporter asked Crangle to comment on the amendment. After Crangle told her that the money laundering bill could apply to legislators taking kickbacks from their consultants, she began asking the subcommittee members if the law could be applied in the current campaign finance scandal. Crangle said legislators were running around like the Keystone Kops when they realized they were about to pass a law to criminalize the redirection of campaign donations into the pockets of their Republican colleagues. Clemmons pulled his amendment, apparently to ensure the new law prevents legislators from being defined as prostitutes.

See story in The State.

2. Independent Redistricting Commission (H-3339: Funderburk, Cobb-Hunter)
This would establish an independent body of seven non-legislators to draw new political districts. The current 170 legislative districts and seven congressional districts have been drawn by the majority party of the legislature, and have resulted in the nation’s least competitive elections. The current districts established a majority-white, Republican rule that insures that Republicans will draw the new districts in 2020. It’s a good guess that the Republicans will not draw competitive districts that would require them to address the concerns of all the people in their districts. Our politically gerrymandered districts result in 78 percent of South Carolinians having only one candidate to chose from in general elections. The current situation allows the majority party to chose who votes for them, rather than giving the citizens a choice.

The chances of the bill passing are slim to none. But the Network is using the bill to help people understand the true gravity of our broken democracy. The Network’s spring conference on April 15 will focus on this problem. (As they become available, details will be posted on our web calendar and Facebook event page.)

3. Special Election Restitution Act (S-533)
New state senator, Progressive Legislative Caucus ally, and longtime Network member Mike Fanning introduced this bill less than a month after taking office. It requires elected officials who are removed from office due to a criminal conviction to pay the cost of the special election to replace them. The bill has gotten national attention, as it appears that no state has such a provision. Crangle got the idea for the bill after state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was busted for cocaine and a special session of the legislature was called to replace him. Crangle convinced federal Judge Joe Anderson to add $28,000 to Ravenel’s sentence to cover the session’s costs. Crangle has lined up Judge Anderson to testify in favor of the bill. The only opposition to this reasonable bill will be legislators fearing indictment or planning a criminal enterprise.

4. Dark Money Bill
This was introduced by Sen. Hugh Leatherman this year after he was targeted by the deep-pocketed political action committees of the Koch Brothers. The Kochs dumped money into primary campaigns of Tea Party candidates to oppose Republicans who supported increasing SC’s gas tax. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that corporations have free speech rights and SC doesn’t require disclosure of donations to independent advocacy organizations, liberals are being swamped by right-wing money. In a turn of the screw, Koch front groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth have been targeting Republicans who dare to suggest a tax increase of any kind. Leatherman, arguably the most powerful politician in SC, was in a tight race against a dark-money fueled opponent. Sens. Wes Hayes and Larry Martin both lost their seats to dark-money candidates because they dared to support a gas tax.

It was bizarre theater at the hearing. The cast of characters included Koch-supported veteran organizations, Tea Party representatives, and anti-choice activists who testified that their supporters would be afraid to donate to their organizations if their names were disclosed.

Rep. Jeff Duncan stops payment on memorial to Rep. Joe Neal

When Rev. Joe Neal died unexpectedly on Feb. 14, his family asked that any donations in his memory be made to the SC Progressive Network, which he co-founded and led for 21 years.

Congressman Jeff Duncan‘s office sent a $25 check, as the two had served together in the SC House. But when Duncan became aware that the donation was going to the Progressive Network, he stopped payment. Adding insult to injury, the Network was charged $20 in bank fees.

Network Director Brett Bursey called Duncan’s office to clarify whether the congressman was indeed that petty. For the record, he is.

When Joe’s sister, Wilma Neal Garren, was told about the incident, she said, “Anybody who touched Joe’s life knew that, as a founder of the South Carolina Progressive Network, that the organization was near and dear to his heart. To step forward to honor Joe and then take the donation to Joe’s favorite charity back is the height of hypocrisy, and shows that he didn’t know Joe.”

The check came from Duncan’s 2016 campaign account, which spent $715,207 to beat Democratic opponent Hosea Cleveland, who spent $9,166. Duncan’s campaign ended with a balance of $65,285. Duncan is a member of the Freedom Caucus, a collection of the most conservative lawmakers in DC, and was most recently in the news defending his bill to make it easier to buy gun silencers.