Don’t sanitize history; learn from it

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The monument to racist Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman on the State House grounds.

Since the Confederate flag has come down, there is some public sentiment that the state now must remove monuments erected to racist state leaders. The SC Progressive Network does not subscribe to that idea. Network Director Brett Bursey issued this statement:

“The tragedy in Charleston is a teachable moment, and a chance to talk honestly about the racist nature of our heritage. Removing monuments to white supremacists like Calhoun, Hampton, Simms or Tillman will not change the past, nor will it help future generations understand and change the institutionalized racism they inherit.

White supremacy is deeply woven into our history. It was, in fact, at the core of the state and nation’s founding. We support telling the truth about our former ‘heroes’ with additional plaques that explain their role in using race and class oppression to retain wealth and power.

If Ben Tillman is erased from our present history, we will not fully understand why and how our state ranks so consistently low on quality of life charts.”

The Network is in the process of creating a walking tour of the State House grounds, a people’s guide to its monuments. The project will launch this fall.

Brett Bursey began his life-long career as a progressive activist in 1968 as the SC State Traveler for the Southern Student Organizing Committee. He founded the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW) in 1975. GROW organized the SC Progressive Network in 1995.

A look back at three weeks that changed South Carolina

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The racially motivated tragedy in Charleston’s Emanuel Church ignited a renewed resolve to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s State House grounds, something the SC Progressive Network committed to 20 years ago at its founding conference. At a rally organized just days after the murders, Network Director Brett Bursey addressed the crowd of nearly two thousand, asking the assembled to become part of a social movement.

As lawmakers in special session deliberated the fate of the flag in the SC State House, citizens gathered outside in the blistering heat to demand action. The handful of Confederate supporters there got an earful.

On July 4, hundreds gathered to rally for the third time to demand lawmakers remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Kevin Gray spoke for the SC Progressive Network.

“We have grieved. Now we must get back to work.”

Message from SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey:

After one of the most painful weeks in our state’s Jim Crow history, the SC Progressive Network is stepping away from the microphone and media circus to refocus our energy on the long-term struggle ahead. We have grieved. Now we must get back to work.

We are committed to insuring that the struggle for equality and democracy continues beyond the funerals and the flag controversy.

6Kevin Alexander Gray speaks on behalf of the Progressive Network at the State House on June 23.

It appears that the flag will be coming down before the end of the current special session. The state Senate convenes at 10am July 6, and will take up the bill to move the flag off the grounds as it awaits House action on the budget. The House goes into session at 1pm July 6, and will take up vetoes and the budget while awaiting the Senate bill to remove the flag.

Our allies in the legislature have counted the votes and believe there is the necessary two-third to move the flag.

That said, a continued citizen presence and insistence on removing the flag will facilitate getting the job done promptly. But be mindful that grandstanding on the flag’s removal, especially by national figures, isn’t helpful. In the interest of using the occasion to fend off the fundamentalists and bring more rational thought to our legislature, we need to recognize that conservative legislators like Senators Tom Davis and Paul Thurmond are voting to bring the flag down.

Then we work on getting them – and others in power – to address the larger, more insidious problem of systemic racism in South Carolina.

On July 4, there will be a “Unity and Healing” gathering at the State House that is being billed as a family event with music and speakers starting at 4:30pm.

The Network will have a table and be talking to those in attendance about the work yet to be done, and inviting them to get involved in the revolution of social values to which we remain committed.

Network members who want to help spread the message should come by the Network’s tent and pick up some invitations to distribute to crowd.

Questions? Call our office at 803-808-3384.

Remembering Sen. Clementa Pinckney

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Sen. Clementa Pinckney testifies at a legislative committee hearing on the SC Progressive Network’s bill calling for clean elections.

Brett Bursey
SC Progressive Network Director

I first met Clementa Pinckney when he was elected to represent Lowcountry counties in 1997. He was 24 years old and powerfully earnest in a humble way. I knew the name, having grown up in Beaufort with white Pinckneys who were ever-mindful of their famous namesake’s role in establishing this state and nation. A standing joke in Beaufort was “the Rutledges speak to the Pinckenys and the Pinckneys speak only to God.”

Clementa smiled at my mention of the white side of his family, noting that they got the money and land, but are no closer to God than his side of the family.

Most of his friends called him Clem. But I loved the name his mother Theopia gave him, and always used it. I had several occasions to spend time with his wife Jennifer and their two daughters. The girls are precious, precocious and polite reflections of their father. They will always miss him, but will always remember, too, the president of the United States eulogizing him, as well as the outpouring of grief and love across our state.

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Sen. Pinckney speaks at a clean elections press conference at the State House.

Clementa was an active member of the SC Progressive Network, and championed legislation we promoted. His sponsorship and articulate defense of our clean elections bill to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics was captured on an SCETV clip here.

Clementa’s calm nature in spite of his demanding schedule was humbling. While he was a legislator, pastoring a church on the coast and being a great dad back home in Ridgeland, he found time to get a masters degree in Public Administration from USC, then take classes at the Lutheran Seminary.

When he was transferred from a small AME church in Beaufort County to one in Charleston, he didn’t mention that he was the new pastor of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church. The church, one of the oldest black congregations in the nation, has a history that reflects the violence of our state’s racist heritage. Denmark Vesey, was one of the founders of the church in 1818 and the leader of a Charleston slave rebellion in 1822. Vesey and 34 others were hung for their role in the rebellion in which no white people were injured. The church was burned during the Vesey trial, and in 1834 the state outlawed all black churches.

A great new leader has been taken from us by an old and insidious enemy. Let it serve to remind us of the long road we’re traveling for racial justice, and deepen our resolve to stay the course.

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Pinckney speaks to members of the SC Progressive Network at Penn Center.

Network takes healthcare message on the road

logo3The SC Progressive Network is in the process of training crews of volunteers to launch its latest project, the Healthy Democracy Road Show, designed to educate and mobilize voters on the state of democracy and healthcare in South Carolina. Road crews will do door-to-door canvassing in targeted neighborhoods, and a show is being developed to liven up events in selected towns across South Carolina.

We spent the last legislative session targeting lawmakers on Medicaid expansion. Now, over the summer and early fall, we will focus on targeted communities across the state, taking our message to the people most affected by state lawmakers’ refusal to accept federal funding — our own tax money.

In July and early August, trainings for organizers are being held. For information, or to schedule a training in your area, call 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com. The next training is on July 21 at the ILA Hall in Charleston.

This clip is from a training in Columbia, presented by Network Director Brett Bursey.

Nullifying the nullifiers; a political primer

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SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey challenges Sen. Tom Davis outside Senate chambers before senators take up the “Nullify Obamacare” bill. Truthful Tuesday activists have been lobbying lawmakers since the legislature reconvened on Jan. 14.

The “Nullify Obamacare” bill was voted down in the SC Senate late Wednesday night, with a vote of 33 opposed to nine in favor of the House-passed version. It’s complicated, but here’s a breakdown.

Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) completely rewrote H- 3101, which expressly rejected Medicaid expansion and regulated federal ACA Navigators. (The Network was among the groups in South Carolina awarded a grant to help people navigate the insurance marketplace to be in compliance with the new health care law.)

The amended bill died after Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell ruled that Davis’ amendment was not germane to the House version. McConnell, who serves as president of the Senate, said of the House version, “I was having trouble understanding what that bill really did.”

Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) raised a point of order that the regulations placed on Navigators had nothing to do with the original bill. McConnell agreed, and ruled Davis’ entire amendment out of order.

In a move seen as disrespectful in the body that prides itself on being deliberative and cordial, Davis appealed McConnell’s ruling to the Senate floor. Twenty-eight senators, 14 from each party, upheld the decision to kill Davis’ amended bill.

With Davis’ version of H-3101 dead, the vote then was called on the original House version that even Davis had declared unconstitutional. Only nine Republicans voted to adopt the “Nullify Obamacare” version of the bill. In the end, 19 Republicans joined 14 Democrats to reject the bill on a 33 – 9 vote.

That only nine of 28 Republican senators took the rigid Tea Party stance against “Obamacare” is seen by SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey as “a rare victory for rational thought in the legislature.”

That said, Bursey cautioned that the damage has already been done, calling the time-sapping legislative posturing “bad political theater.” South Carolinians are already suffering from the state’s refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act, with more than 1,000 deaths predicted here this year because lawmakers refused to accept Medicaid expansion money (which, we remind you, is OUR tax dollars.)

The death of H-3101 doesn’t mean that South Carolina lawmakers will stop obstructing the ACA. South Carolina is still refusing money for a state insurance marketplace and Medicaid expansion. The Davis bill would have added regulating state Navigators and blocking public bodies from helping people get insurance to the state’s anti-Obamacare campaign.

“A goal of our Truthful Tuesday protests,” Bursey said, “was to get people talking, change the dialogue, and reduce the Tea Party influence on Republicans. That is happening.”

What did activist Modjeska Simkins think about the Confederate flag flying on the State House?

You might be surprised.

SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey talks about the long-running debate he had with his mentor about the flag, which came off the dome in 2000 — and relocated to a more visible position on the State House lawn.

Why did they do it?

Outside the Senate chambers March 4, SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey explains to a reporter with The State why Truthful Tuesday activists blocked the road to the SC State House entrance. Eleven were arrested. (At the time of the interview, the protesters were still being processed at police headquarters, and Bursey thought 10 had been arrested.)

Truthful Tuesday activists keep pressure on SC lawmakers to expand Medicaid

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On Feb. 25, advocates for Medicaid expansion in South Carolina gathered at the State House for a “Day of Shame,” targeting senators as they went into session. The Senate is expected to take up the “Nullify Obamacare” bill as early as this week.

Organizers Brett Bursey and Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III remind us why we are there.

See news coverage: WIS-TV, The Buzz, The State.

Visit TruthfulTuesday.net to learn more about the movement and see a calendar of next steps. Or you can call the SC Progressive Network at 803-808-3384 or email info@truthfultuesday.net.

It was a good day for SC voters

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History was made yesterday in the SC House Judiciary Election and Ethics Laws Subcommittee when Chairman Alan Clemmons approved two bills that the SC Progressive Network supported in hearings. These bills, which will make voting more transparent and accountable, are the first Network-promoted bills in 10 years to clear Rep. Clemmons’ committee. (He was the primary sponsor of the photo ID bill that the Network fought for several years.)

The first bill, H-3198, sponsored by Richland Rep. James Smith (D), will put the State Election Commission in charge of elections. The current voting system gives each of the 46 county Election Boards independence from centralized control. The system was designed by the state constitution of 1895 to disenfranchise black citizens by allowing the senator from each county to appoint the board. This was following a decade when the SC House was the only legislative body in the nation that was majority-black.

Rep. Clemmons signed onto the bill, stating that a centralized authority would make for more professional and consistent management of elections.

For years, the Network has advocated giving the State Election Commission authority over the county boards. “The SEC can only advise the county boards, and they often have different interpretations of the laws,” said Network director Brett Bursey. “It’s difficult to explain to people that no one is in charge of elections in South Carolina.”

The second bill, H-4364, was drafted by Bursey and introduced by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter. He referred to the bill as a “State Section 5 Registry,” filed after the US Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination to “prefile” changes to voting procedures to insure that they did not negatively affect minority voters.

“With the loss of the federal Section 5 registry,” Bursey testified, “there is no public notice of voting changes.” Clemmons agreed with Bursey that citizens deserve to be notified of changes to election laws, and approved H-4364’s requirement that all changes will be reported to the SEC and posted on the its web site.

“This won’t keep bad things from happening,” Bursey said, “but at least voters and advocacy groups will be given notice before they take effect.”

Both bills have rare bipartisan support and a chance of becoming law.vote_clipart

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter: “Until the silent majority takes over, nothing in this state will change.”

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Orangeburg Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter tells Truthful Tuesday organizers at a meeting Feb. 4 that the SC Legislative Black Caucus fully supports their efforts, and that the Caucus is crafting a bill to expand Medicaid in South Carolina in 2014. There has never been a vote on the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina, so no lawmakers are on record supporting or opposing this landmark legislation.

In this clip, Cobb-Hunter delivers a powerful message to community organizers about this moment in time being an extraordinary opportunity. Highly recommended viewing for all members of the SC Progressive Network and Truthful Tuesday partners.

She also says she’s gathering bond money in case the time comes for civil disobedience.

Bookmark TruthfulTuesday.net, and stay in touch with a growing coalition of people from across the state who refuse to be held hostage by state lawmakers pushing an extreme agenda in South Carolina. Enough is enough.

See photos from the first Truthful Tuesday lobby outside the Governor’s Office Feb. 4.

Remembering Modjeska

SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey wrote this tribute to his mentor, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, upon the occasion of her death. It ran in the May 1992 issue of POINT, four years before the newspaper was archived online. Here is a scan of the piece. Click on the image to enlarge.

The article is among the research materials being assembled for the Network’s latest project, establishing the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, set to launch Dec. 5, on what would have been Modjeska’s 114th birthday. Follow the progress of the project on Facebook. For more information, contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

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Vote suppression is the real voting fraud

By Brett Bursey
Director, SC Progressive Network

When I saw Rep. Alan Clemmons’ guest column in The State, “Voting problems continue to haunt us” (July 21), I was hoping he’d explain his part in peddling the myth of dead people voting in South Carolina, and apologize to the people he misled. He did neither.

Instead, he again claimed an “undeniable presence of election fraud in South Carolina,” and took a cheap shot at the S.C. Progressive Network to make his point. He referenced an instance years ago when bogus forms were turned in by someone the network hired to do voter registration in Florence County. I caught the fraud myself and called SLED and the County Election Board the day the forms were submitted.

No fraudulent votes were cast. I testified against the perpetrator, and he went to jail. The system worked.

Clemmons’ column goes on to call the photo ID law he championed “a good first step” and said, “Now, to cast a ballot, you are required to prove who your are and that you are eligible to vote in that election.”

The truth is that Clemmons’ bill was interpreted — essentially rewritten — by the federal appeals court, which ruled that “South Carolina’s new law … does not require a photo ID to vote.” The state spent $3.5 million on private attorneys to defend a law against a problem that doesn’t exist — and lost.

While unable to cite a single case of in-person voter impersonation, Clemmons told the U.S. Department of Justice that “voter fraud in South Carolina is an unspoken truth.” Still today, he conflates absentee ballot and voter registration fraud, neither of which requires a photo ID, with in-person fraud at the polls, of which there is no evidence.

In the nine years Clemmons has chaired the House’s Election Laws Subcommittee, he has killed every bill the network’s legislative members have sponsored to broaden voter participation. He nixed our proposals to establish early voting centers and high school voter registration programs, to reduce the influence of money in elections, to re-enfranchise felons and to adopt voter-verified paper ballots.

Rather than working to make voting more accessible and inclusive, Clemmons has said voting should not be easy.

We do agree on one thing: South Carolina’s election system is dysfunctional. It was established by the 1895 state constitution, which reversed the democratic aspects of the 1868 constitution that empowered black citizens. It delegated authority to 46 county election boards, appointed by local legislators, with no centralized control.

County election boards interpret and enforce election laws differently, and are not accountable to the State Election Commission.

Clemmons proposes to fix the problem by putting the State Election Commission under the partisan office of secretary of state. But in Florida and Ohio, where they run elections, secretaries of state have been accused of disenfranchising thousands of voters.

More partisan control in a state already crippled by it would be a mistake. A better answer would be to empower our independent, nonpartisan State Election Commission to run elections.

The truth is, our democracy is not threatened by voter fraud but by legislators who have rigged the system. Around 10 percent of eligible voters are choosing our Legislature.

If Clemmons was truly concerned about the “sanctity” of our electoral system, he would address the fact that the S.C. Legislature has the least-competitive elections in the nation, with 80 percent of lawmakers elected with no general-election opposition.

Clemmons, for example, got 99.12 percent of the vote in 2012, when he was the only candidate on the ballot. He was swept into office by 6.1 percent of voters in his district.

The Network believes we can do better. We will continue to fight to make our democracy more representative, and invite anyone who shares our goal to join us. Call us at 803-808-3384, email us at network@scpronet.com, or find us Facebook or Twitter.

SC deserves new voting machines

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network Communications Director

A SC Legislative Audit Council report released March 27 on the state’s voting machines found serious glitches. “Problems with iVotronic machines that have been reported in elections in other states include vote flipping, candidates missing from screens, lost votes or too many votes, freezing, and batteries,” the report found.

The report didn’t mention that many of those states have quit using the iVotronics, which are no longer being manufactured. While these same problems have been widely observed in South Carolina, every precinct still uses them.”63% of the counties that had problems with the machines have not reported the problems to the State Election Commission (SEC),” the study reported, and recommended the SEC establish a hotline to track problems with the machines.

The SC Progressive Network has helped run a statewide election day hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, in every general election since 2004. Network Director Brett Bursey said, “In the last general election, while all the news was focused on long lines in Richland County, we had calls from five other counties about machine problems causing hours-long waits to vote.”

EP-sign“The SEC has not gathered information about the increasing unreliability of these machines, which are reaching the end of their projected 10-year-lifespan,” Bursey said, and we welcome the LAC report as the start of a serious discussion about what our new voting system should look like.”The Network opposed the purchase of the iVotronic machines in 2004, in part, due to their inability to produce a voter-verified paper ballot that could be used to call a close race. The LAC report concluded, “The audit process in South Carolina is limited by the absence of a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).” The LAC determined that a VVPAT could be added to the existing machines for $17.3 million.

The 2013 House budget includes $5 million that the SEC has requested to begin saving for a new system after 2016.

“Rather than consider patching up these machines, or buying more used ones as Richland County is planning, we need to be looking at better and cheaper ways to vote — well before 2016,” Bursey said.

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The Network has long advocated a voter-verifiable voting system like the one Clemson has devised.

Dr. Juan Gilbert, Chair of the Clemson School of Computing, Human-Centered Computing Division, has been doing research and development on electronic voting systems since 2003. He got a $4 million grant from the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) several years ago to develop a better voting system. The EAC sets standards for voting machines, and has never approved the system currently used in South Carolina.

Gilbert’s “Prime III” meets federal requirements, and was used in a state election for the first time in January in Oregon. Prime III runs on open-source software, on machines available at any computer store. It’s simple, cheap, reliable, produces a voter-verified-paper ballot, and can be publicly owned. The privately owned system we now use costs $1million in annual licensing fees, more on tech support, and runs on secret codes.

“We see no legal impediments to using a system like Clemson has developed, and tremendous advantages,” Bursey said. “Clemson can provide the software, our technical schools can train technicians, and a whole new statewide system would cost little more than adding a paper trail to our old machines.”