Happy birthday to us! Here’s to 20 more!

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April 1996, Penn Center, St. Helena Island, SC

Twenty years ago this month, the SC Progressive Network held its founding conference. The weekend was the culmination of a year of networking, with grassroots activists meeting and talking by phone to organize a statewide coalition.

The idea was to build a unified front to fight the erosion of gains they had worked decades to secure, believing that by joining forces they could leverage each other’s work and strengthen the progressive community in South Carolina. You can read about that weekend in a story that ran in the May 1996 issue of POINT newspaper, one of the vehicles for Network organizing.

That piece quotes Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who was at the conference, along with Rep. Joe Neal, who served as Network co-chair for the first dozen years. He said, “My first philosophy is: don’t agonize; organize. I think this is the first step toward doing that. In the work I do [as a social worker for battered women] we talk about breaking the silence to end abuse. That’s what we have to do here; it’s the same analogy. We need to break the silence.

“We need to get beyond our own groups… and challenge these crazies spewing hateful stuff. You cannot allow them to outwork you. Stop whining and complaining; get out and do something.”

The piece noted that while conservatives have monopolized the public debate, it is power that had been abdicated, not earned. “In truth, most South Carolinians do not participate in the political process. Less than half of us are registered. In the 1994 general elections, according to figures from the state Election Commission, only 34 percent made it to the polls. In the gubernatorial election, David Beasley won with just 17 percent of the state’s voting age population.” [Gov. Nikki Haley won with similarly low numbers.)

“The task for the Network is to reach – and mobilize – the other 83 percent. Once the numbers are crunched, the idea of shaking up the status quo seems a less daunting task.”

The Network has not just survived 20 years, but has thrived. We have done tremendous work on a shoestring budget, and have created a solid foundation that will serve the progressive community well into the future. With your continued help and support, we look forward to many more years of shaking things up and speaking truth to power in South Carolina.

“I’ve never been self promotional,” said Network Director Brett Bursey, “but after 20 years of good and productive work, I think it’s time to take a bow. I’m realizing that my reticence to blow our own horn limits our reach, our recruiting and our fundraising.”

Come help us celebrate at our monthly meeting in Columbia April 12, 7pm, at the Modjeska House, 2025 Marion St. After a brief update on the work we’re doing, we’ll have cake and hoist a glass to toast our success. If you can’t join us, you can let us know you care by sending a gift. Details here.

Thanks, everyone! See you in the trenches.

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Network Director Brett Bursey, center, and Reps. Joe Neal and Gilda Cobb-Hunter. See more photos from the Network’s first statewide gathering in our photo album.

Modjeska School is now accepting students to its spring session

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“We are really excited about the spring session of the Modjeska School,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “It’s shaping up to be a powerful experience. We have expanded our readings, will have more guest teachers, and are adding a class. We also have built in more time for open discussion.”

The spring session of the Modjeska School will be held every other Monday between March 21 and June 20. The session is limited to 32 students. Preference will be given to SC Progressive Network members who pledge to put their learned organizing skills to work in South Carolina.

Students will meet in the evenings between 6:30pm and 8:30pm at Columbia’s historic Siebles House.

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Kyle Criminger, who graduated from the summer session of the Modjeska School, had this to say: “South Carolina community organizers have the complete package in the School: guided study followed by mentorship in the field. In the people’s history lectures and readings, you find a South Carolina you didn’t know existed.

The School is informed by a global analysis of the problems.  It is all one struggle, the struggle for human rights, and we learned again and again the lesson that all of us who are losing must work together to fight our common enemy. Doing the work of organizing our communities means that first we tap into the collective wisdom and experience of those who have come before.

We don’t just just talk about the problems; we’re leveraging effective strategy to get the job done. That means students use “shovel-ready” Network projects, hold work meetings, and then educate, agitate, and organize a community of shared values, a movement with the power to set political priorities that meet everyday South Carolinians’ needs.”

To apply, prospective students must submit a written application and complete a brief telephone interview. (You must download the application to make it interactive.) A $190 tuition fee covers class materials, copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History and A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America. Fees may be paid monthly; scholarships are available to those who need help.

If you have problems downloading the application or have any questions, call 803-808-3384. For more about the Modjeska School, visit our web site.

• CLASS SCHEDULE •

Class 1 – March 21: In the beginning – 1860. Earliest human habitation, through Native presence, the arrival of the White Man, the establishment of the colony by the Barbadians and the development of the slave economy

Class 2 – April 4: 1860-1895: SC’s role in the Civil War. Reconstruction and redemption.

Class 3 – April 18: 1895-1945: 1895 Constitution, redemption, the rise of Jim Crow, the fall of democracy, the New Deal and a world war.

Class 4 – May 2: 1945-1968: Rise of Dixiecrats, SC’s struggle against racial equality and the civil rights movement, the Great Society and the Southern Strategy to end it.

Class 5 – May 16: 1968-1996: Modern movements. Vietnam, United Citizens Party, GROW, gay and women’s liberation movements, Republicans rising, Democrats surrendering and the SC Progressive Network established.

Class 6 – May 23: 1996-2022. (schedule change due to Memorial Day) Progressive Network’s history and future plans. Building political power on changes, opportunities, clever planning and hard work.

Class 7 – June 6: Theories, Strategy and Tactics. What are our sharpest tools for building and sustaining a popular movement for a revolution of social values? What skills do we need, and what resources do we have?

Class 8 – June 20: Enough Theory; Let’s Practice! Students will design and launch an actual organizing project.

As SC prepares to replace aging voting machines, the SC Progressive Network advocates for low-tech devices

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SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey addressed the Joint Legislative Committee on Voting System Research on Nov. 10 at a meeting to talk about replacing the state’s aging voting machines. (His testimony begins at 2:13 in this clip.)

The five Senators and five House members on the committee invited State Election Commission Director Marci Andino to make a presentation about the acquisition of new voting machines. She was hired in 2003, not long before she spent the state’s $34 million federal grant to buy new voting machines. Ours was the first state to spend its Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money that was allocated after the 2000 “hanging chad” drama that resulted in the George Bush presidency.

In 2003, the Network testified before the SEC board (Andino’s bosses) while its members deliberated whether to buy more than 10,000 of the machines at $3,000 apiece. We presented expert witnesses who testified that the proposed machines were not certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission, that the software to run them is secret, and the devices don’t produce a voter-verifiable paper record necessary for a recount.

Against that advice, South Carolina bought the machines, and Andino remains a loyal consumer of the paperless, secret-software, touch-screen devices we have been using since 2004.

Andino told the committee that she was going ahead with writing the Request for Proposals for the new voting system, and expected to have the bid let by the end of the year. Committee Chair Sen. Ronnie Cromer (R-Lexington) pointed out that the committee wouldn’t have their report on what kind of system SC should buy until after the first of the year.

Andino told the committee that the state procurement code put her in charge of writing specifications for investing $40 million in a new voting system. Murmurs in the audience suggested that she might regret telling legislators that they couldn’t tell her what to do.

Comments from legislators – especially the Republicans – supported the type of system that the Network has for years been advocating: a publicly owned system that doesn’t rely on secret codes for security, but relies on a voter-verified paper ballot. It is a simple system that can use an off-the-shelf computer or tablet to run software that lets the voter touch (or talk) to the screen and print a paper ballot. The voter reviews the ballot to verify that it’s marked correctly, then deposits the ballot in a scanner that counts the vote before the voter leaves the precinct.

This low-tech system will cost about half of what Andino is prepared to spend on a proprietary one, and it doesn’t require specially trained company technicians. The state could teach students in our 17 tech schools to maintain our publicly owned system.

The Network will be educating the public and our members on this issue, and asking them to lobby their legislators to purchase a more transparent, reliable and fiscally sound voting system.

SC progressives map strategy for 2016

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Inaugural class graduates from the Network’s Modjeska Simkins School

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The students who graduated Aug. 24 from the Modjeska School’s summer session were a diverse mix: gay and straight, retired and collegiate, blue-collar, union and professional, black, Latino and white. The youngest was 2nd-grader Rose Duncan, daughter of guest lecturer Graham Duncan, and the eldest student was Eunice “Tootsie” Holland, who will turn 84 in December.

What they shared was an intense, three-month session that covered a South Carolina people’s history. The massacre at the Emanuel Church in Charleston took place just two days after we talked in class about Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave rebellion. It was Vesey’s church that was again the chosen target of a violent racist attack. We added an extra class to talk about the tragedy, Sen. Clementa Pinckney – an ally of the SC Progressive Network – and the political maneuvering around the Confederate flag. Pressure from GOP candidates on the campaign trail forced Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the flag to come down. It was a stunning example to see how history is made, and remade.

The summer session covered South Carolina history as well as our own, teaching how the Network was created 19 years ago, and tracing its genealogy from the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW). Students also learned basic civics and organizing strategies. “You’re never too old to learn new things,” said Andy Sidden, pastor at Garden of Grace Church, “and, boy, did I!”

The school is a work in progress. “It was a privilege to have been a guinea pig for the noble experiment,” said Kyle Criminger. “We learned so much, so many stories that I had never heard. And it put the popular movement in historical context, and clarified our strategy and tactics.”

Course material will be revisited, repackaged, culled, expanded and posted to be accessible and user-friendly for students and the public. We are in the process of recording oral histories on key topics by South Carolina social justice movers and shakers, as well as uploading clips from the summer classes to share on the web site. Our goal is to see that the Modjeska School’s organizer training gets spread across the state by training up a corps of teachers and by also having on-line classes.

Students will carry what they’ve learned into the real world, starting immediately. They have signed up for at least one Network project, and will be working with other activists to expand and create Network initiatives. They are:

  • Medicaid expansion. South Caorlina is on track to privatize Medicaid funding, a really bad idea that’s driven by for-profit health care and anti-government ideologues. We will update our campaign for this new reality in 2016.
  • Racial profiling. Using the toolkit the Network created years ago, with a law we wrote to support it, we will teach community activists how to hold law enforcement accountable for its practices during traffic stops.
  • Missing Voter Project. The Network will continue its work on voting rights and targeting under-served communities to engage them and register them to vote.
  • Clean elections. Also called publicly financed, or voter-owned elections, this is the reform that can make all other reform possible. We will continue the work that Sen. Clementa Pinckney held dear, reducing the influence of money in politics.

Duncan said, “These last three months with the school have been incredible, and I feel fortunate and honored to have been included in helping develop a curriculum for the classes. Seeing a group of people come together to discuss how we can use lessons from South Carolina history to inform and influence our current efforts to organize in an attempt to enact more progressive policies gives me real hope for the future.”

Thank you to guest teachers Graham Duncan, Dr. Ed Madden, Dr. Hoyt Wheeler, Dr. Tom Terrill, Kevin Gray, Rep. Joseph Neal, and Meeghan Kane.

And congratulations to the graduates!

See more photos in our class album.

For more about the school, call 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

SC LGBT pioneer Harriet Hancock discovers she’s kin to another pioneer, Modjeska Monteith Simkins

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Columbia natives Harriet Hancock and Modjeska Monteith Simkins share more than a passion for civil rights. They share a family tree rooted in the same Midlands soil.

Harriet discovered the connection after reading about Modjeska’s family history in the SC Progressive Network’s booklet Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary.

“She was an activist. I’m an activist,” she said. “It’s all about civil rights, no matter whether it’s about race or sexual orientation or transgender issues. It’s all the same. What a great thing it is that we come from the same bloodline.”

Listen to her remarkable story.

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.