Modjeska School graduate talks about lessons learned

Rep. Joe Neal congratulations Kyle Criminger at the 2015 graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights.

As the Modjeska School prepares for its Spring 2017 session, we thought it timely to share Kyle’s thoughts about the school and lessons learned there. The School is accepting applications through March 13. Classes run March 20-June 12 at the Seibels House in Columbia. Some scholarships available; call 803-808-3384 for details.

•  •  •

We got perspective at the Modjeska Simkins School: a big-picture analysis—a Modjeska Simkins analysis—of South Carolina’s history.

We learned that there is a direct line of malice from John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as “a positive good,” to Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman’s white supremacist state Constitution of 1895 (under which our state continues to operate to this day), to the coded racism of Harry Dent and Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy. Always the substance of South Carolina public policies has shown that black lives don’t matter here.

The imbalance of power in South Carolina is no accident. Because of unprecedented partisan gerrymandering, we have the least competitive legislative elections in the United States. Three out of four representatives faced no major party competition in the 2014 general election.

“Most of our legislators in South Carolina are winning with 99% of the vote,” said Brett Bursey, Executive Director of the SC Progressive Network. “The old Soviet elections we used to make fun of? Well, we now have that here.”

South Carolinians have the lowest combined state and federal tax burden in the country, yet our legislature tells that us we’re broke when we’re not. In fact, we leave more money on the table in special interest tax exemptions than we take in. We get immoral budgets and refused Medicaid Expansion for 250,000 of us because of petty partisan politics.

It’s maddening, but our problems aren’t new. “The names and faces have changed,” notes Progressive Network Communications Director Becci Robbins in Modjeska Monteith Simkins—A South Carolina Revolutionary, “but the political and social dynamics of exclusion, extremism and institutional racism remain stubbornly intact in South Carolina. We share Modjeska Simkins’ frustration and sense of urgency.”

Time and again, South Carolina history shows us how Modjeska Simkins and so many others have resisted. We are not alone, you see. Have you heard of the Yemassee War, or the Stono Rebellion? Denmark Vesey, or the Grimké sisters? What about Robert Smalls and our state’s Reconstruction legislature, which was the only majority black House of Representatives in the nation? The Lighthouse and Informer newspaper, Judge J. Waties Waring, or the Rev. J.A. Delaine?

Maybe you don’t know these names, events and institutions because the “winners” have written our textbooks. Generations of South Carolinians used Mary Simms Oliphant’s infamous history text into the 1980s. The book spoke of “happy slaves,” and was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. (In the 1920s, as a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, Modjeska Simkins refused to use the Oliphant textbook, deeming it racist.)

So we have on the one hand a state that has lived and died by the Golden Rule. Everybody knows the Golden Rule: regrettably, he who has the gold makes the rules. But beside that Rule, we also have stories of rebellion and revolutionary spirits, a South Carolina “people’s history” of organizing. And the task Modjeska Simkins and so many other South Carolinians like her have laid out before us: we must organize to form a community of shared values.

That is 24-7 work. It’s a process.

Organizing means preparing for opportunities. It entails building an organization that returns phone calls, pays staff, and fosters relationships in the community based on trust and confidence. And it is strategic, a disciplined use of collective energies on effective projects, not by simply being reactive. The best organizers leverage already-existing, well-thought-out organizing tools, and tap into the collective wisdom and experience of those who have come before, just like Modjeska Simkins did.

We must connect the dots to see that there is only one struggle, and it is for human rights. “If you have enough sense in your noggin,” Simkins once said, “you’re going to know a fight is there—and not just for black people, but for all mankind.”

The need for exploring our history has never been more critical. The Modjeska School provides an education like none other in South Carolina, one that benefits not just the students but the larger community, as well. As a graduate, I can attest to its value.

•  •  •

Kyle Criminger, a Spanish-language interpreter, serves as Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network. He was one of 35 inaugural graduates of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights. You can support the school by making a secure donation here, or by calling 803-808-3384 or sending an email to network@scpronet.com.

SC progressives map strategy for 2016

IMG_0160

Grassroots activists from across the state met Oct. 23-25 at the SC Progressive Network‘s annual fall retreat at Penn Center in St. Helena, near Beaufort. It was a full weekend of networking, organizing, and mapping plans for the coming legislative session – and beyond.

Saturday morning was spent on Network business: reports from the 11 member groups present and updates from our chapters (Charleston, Columbia, Rock Hill and Spartanburg). The body also approved a bylaws change to establish caucuses within the Network so members can organize around issues and specific constituencies. At Penn, participants caucused on racial justice, women’s rights, and young people. They will identify and promote their own priorities, set their own meeting schedules and develop their own leadership.

Graham Duncan and Meeghan Kane, who taught portions the summer session of the Network’s Modjeska Simkins School, led a short course on the people’s history of South Carolina. Brett Bursey talked about the history of Network, and its precursor GROW.

graham3

The afternoon was given over to a strategy discussion for 2016, centered on a four-pronged approach to: educate, agitate, legislate, and litigate. Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (Orangeburg) and Joe Neal (Richland) – members of the newly formed SC Progressive Legislative Caucus – led a session on the state of voting rights. They were joined by George Eppsteiner, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The main consideration for shaping our strategy about voting rights is recognizing that the system has been rigged by partisan gerrymandering. As the dominant Republican Party has been allowed by the US Justice Dept. to draw legislative districts that create majority-black and white districts, the winners will be chosen in primaries that fewer than 10% of the citizens decide. Accordingly, the Network’s strategy includes grassroots education and agitation around the nation’s least-competitive elections. This educational effort will reflect legislative proposals to restore democracy through creating competitive political districts and other voting methods. These efforts will be capped off by possible litigation challenging the rigged nature of elections.

That session segued into a facilitated discussion on this state’s most insidious problem – institutional racism – and practical ways the Network can address systemic oppression in South Carolina. The panel included Kevin Alexander Gray, Rep. David Mack, and Laura Cahue of Somos SC.

gilda

Participants then broke into work groups, joining issue caucuses or attending workshops on the Network’s Missing Voter Project (led by Kyle Criminger) and Racial Profiling Project (led by Kevin Gray). The Racial Justice caucus and the Immigrant Rights caucus joined the discussion around the Network’s Racial Profiling Project as a “shovel ready” tool to organize against racial injustice anywhere in the state. Laura Cahue reported that Latinos are being targeted by police in traffic stops that often result in jail and deportation. Rep. Neal wants the Network to help coordinate racial profiling complaints from Latino communities to the SC Progressive Legislative Caucus.

Network Caucus contacts:

In the evening, everyone gathered at picnic tables under giant oaks to dine on Gullah Grub’s fried fish and fixin’s, then went inside Frissell Hall to sing along with the fabulous Dave Lippman.

IMG_0182

On Sunday morning, caucus representatives gave reports on their work and next steps. Among other Network business, it was decided to postpone elections for Network officers until our annual spring meeting.

Rep. Cobb-Hunter offered a legislative forecast for 2016, which was followed by discussion on bills we will introduce and promote.

After lunch, the SC Progressive Voter Coalition (SC ProVote), the electoral arm of the Network, met to discuss GOTV priorities and involvement in upcoming state and local races. They were later joined by progressive activist and tax reform expert Mike Fanning, who is running for state Senate (Dist. 17: Chester, Fairfield and York). After a rousing presentation, he earned the group’s endorsement.

IMG_0241

Before adjourning, the body rejected a resolution to support a presidential candidate, as that would break with the Network’s state-based strategic model.

Our thanks to everyone who made time for a very long, but ultimately productive weekend. We will keep you posted about progress with the emerging caucuses and Network chapters.

For information on joining a caucus or creating a Network chapter in your area, or to schedule a Missing Voter Project or Racial Profiling Project training for you or your organization, call our office at 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

IMG_0192

See more snapshots from the weekend at Penn Center in our photo album.

Campaign reform advocates call for clean elections measure on SC ballot

Most South Carolinians are now feeling the effect of unregulated corporate cash that has flooded the state with record numbers of nasty political ads. While most bemoan the devolution of the campaign system – including some GOP candidates – some are redoubling efforts to do something about it.

Advocates for campaign finance reform will hold a press conference on Jan. 20 at 1:30pm in the lower lobby of the State House on the second anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that deregulated limits on corporate campaign donations and fueled record spending in the SC Republican presidential preference primary.

John Crangle, Director of Common Cause of South Carolina, will address the implications of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

“Most people disagree with the Supreme Court rulings that corporations are people and money is speech,” Crangle said. “Amending the US Constitution is going to take some time, but we can address this corruption on a state level now by passing clean elections.”

Rep. Joe Neal, Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network, will speak about the Clean Elections Act that he reintroduced this week. (See more at the Network’s web site.)

“The Clean Elections Act has been introduced in every legislative session since 2000,” Neal said, “but now I think people are waking up to reality that public offices are on the auction block.” Over 90 percent of the candidates for the state legislature that spend the most money win.”

“South Carolinians who are disgusted with the flood of unregulated cash that is corrupting our political system have a way to fight back,” he said. “The Clean Elections Act will allow people to run for office without having to accept corporate, private or PAC money, and still run a competitive campaign.”

Rep. Neal’s legislation calls for putting clean elections on the general election ballot this November.

Citizens who are concerned about money corrupting our political system are invited to attend the press conference.

Latest news from Network’s photo ID campaign

On July 8, the SC Progressive Network held a second press conference on the photo ID law to clear up misconceptions repeated by the governor and lawmakers, and to invite the public to submit comments to the US Dept. of Justice, which is reviewing the new law to consider whether it abridges the minority vote.

See more photos from the media event here.

Below is a sample of the media coverage the press conference generated.

Group seeks those impacted by new SC voter ID law

JIM DAVENPORT, Associated Press
July 8, 2011
South Carolina voting rights advocates said Friday they are looking for voters who might not be able to have their votes counted next year under one of the nation’s toughest voter identification laws. The South Carolina Progressive Network is trying to identify some of the nearly 180,000 people who are now registered to vote but who lack the state- or federal-issued photographic identification called for under the new law. Those people would be able to cast provisional ballots, but would have to show the required identification within three days to have their votes counted. Read more:

Critics challenge ‘Voter ID’ plan

By GINA SMITH
The State
When Delores Freelon was born in 1952, her mother could not decide on a name for her. So the space on the birth certificate for a first name was left blank. In the decades since, the incomplete birth certificate did not prevent Freelon from getting her driver’s license and voter registration card in the various states she has lived, including Texas and Louisiana.
But a measure — already passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Nikki Haley — will create new hurdles for Freelon and others to vote. Read more:

Group aims to block voter ID law
Opponents push for rejection by U.S. Justice Dept.

BY YVONNE WENGER
The Post and Courier
COLUMBIA — The S.C. Progressive Network issued a warning Friday to the nearly 25,000 registered voters in the tri-county area without a state-issued photo ID: You could run into trouble the next time you go to the polls. The advocacy organization is urging the U.S. Department of Justice to reject a new South Carolina law that will require all voters to carry a picture ID to cast a ballot in future elections. The state’s Republican leadership pushed for the new law, citing a need to guard against voter fraud even though there has been no substantive proof of widespread voter fraud for years in the state. Read more:

Progressives Push to Stop Implementation of Voter ID Law

BY COREY HUTCHINS
Free Times
Five TV cameras, two reporters from The State, one from The Associated Press, a reporter from the Charleston Post & Courier and another from the South Carolina Radio Network, among others, swarmed around a podium in the lobby of the State House July 8, as South Carolina Progressive Network director Brett Bursey warned voters here that they might have trouble casting a ballot under a new state law. It comes during a time of a national pushback against such regulations.

Read more: