At the SC Progressive Network‘s 20th annual fall conference, Robert Burgess and Daniel Deweese talked about the Modjeska School and their commitment to building a strong social movement in the Palmetto State sustained by a community of organizers in it for the long haul. Burgess and Deweese are core members of the New Legacy Project, an emerging organization for younger activists.
In 2000, the Network released a study on the racial disparities in our criminal justice system that found SC arresting nearly 10% of black citizens every year, a rate unequaled in the world. In 2001, as a tool to identify and mitigate the racial profiling that drives arrest rates, we wrote and introduced legislation to require all cops to report data on all stops. It wasn’t until 2006, when the legislature’s Republican majority needed Black Caucus votes to over ride Gov. Sanford’s veto of a mandatory seat belt bill (necessary to continue receiving federal highway funds), that our racial profiling bill was passed.
We later learned that our bill was watered down by a conference committee of five white legislators to require only warning tickets be reported.
Our racial profiling project has made inroads with state and local law enforcement agencies about how they will benefit from the improved race relations that will come from a transparent public data base of all stops. Our plan for the coming legislative session is to get the cops to be the ones calling for strengthening the reporting requirements.
As part of our ongoing effort to research and reduce racial bias, we have expanded our work to include the factors that contribute to the militarization of our police. We want to lead a public and political dialogue about whether our local police are warriors or guardians.
Network Cochair Kyle Criminger updated members on the racial profiling project at the group’s fall retreat. Based on a review of racial disparities in arrest rates and a new law requiring cops to report the race of those stopped for traffic warnings, our study reveals that most police agencies in South Carolina are breaking the law by not reporting. The most recent report on the Department of Public Safety’s web site reveals that most of the state’s police agencies are not in compliance.
The Network is circulating this study to stimulate public dialogue about racial profiling and to encourage police agencies to advocate for a database that records all stops to allow for increased transparency.
For more information, see http://scpronet.com.
Sen. Clementa Pinckney addresses the media at a SC Progressive Network press conference at the State House in 2001. He was the lead sponsor of the clean elections bill, first filed in 2000, to reduce the influence of money in South Carolina elections. A study done for the Network in 2001 by the University of South Carolina found that a majority of citizens – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – support clean elections. It concluded that: “More than 60 percent of those surveyed believe that the cost of elections keeps many qualified people from running for public office, a majority believes that the state should have a system of public financing, and almost 60 percent would support a system of public financing if it would cost the average citizen about $3.50 a year.”
The SC Progressive Network‘s two-year campaign to recruit Greenville County college students to file suit against the county election board ended today with a clear victory.
Circuit Judge Robin Stilwell issued an order at 4pm requiring the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration to “immediately and temporarily cease and desist from requiring the additional questionnaire from on-campus residents of Greenville County colleges.”
Judge Stilwell concluded that if the requested relief was denied “the Plaintiffs (Ben) Longnecker and (Katherine) West will not be afforded the privilege of exercising their constitutional rights in the upcoming election. That opportunity will be forever lost.”
The lawsuit also prompted the State Election Commission (SEC) to issue its first “cease and desist” order telling a county board what to do since South Carolina’s voting laws were codified in the 1895 constitution that disenfranchised blacks. “We anticipate that the SEC will force Greenville County to permanently end this practice,” said Network Director Brett Bursey, “and that it will use its new authority to force counties to follow standard procedures that will make the voting process in South Carolina less confusing and more equitable.”
SC Progressive Network Faith Liaison
On a cloudy mid-June day, I stepped off of a short flight from Atlanta and into the jazz capital of the world. Unsure of which shuttle ran from the airport to Loyola University, I decided to stop by the service desk. The concierge was a nice middle-aged woman who offered pamphlets full of standard attractions and confirmed where I might find our shuttle. After a few pleasant exchanges about her beloved city, she offered up intel on festivals, parades and local happenings with a wink and smile. Her charm and friendliness would set the tone for my first excursion to New Orleans.
Over the next two days, SC Progressive Network Executive Director Brett Bursey, fellow organizer Daniel Deweese, and I would participate in the third annual SOLVE conference. The Southern Leadership for Voter Engagement conference is a multi-generational and multi-racial leadership group for increased civic participation in the South. The mission: collaborate to create innovative community-level initiatives to enhance voting access, and advocate for voting rights. This year’s theme was Strong, Persistent, and Determined Action: SOLVE after Shelby, a reference to the Supreme Court Case, Shelby County v. Holder, which ultimately struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional.
Brett, being the prudent strategist that he is, made our assignments very clear. Go forth and learn. Not just the raw data analysis and gerrymandering statistics that comes from actively listening to the panelist, but the type of learning that can only come from conversations in the hallway. From handshakes and a smile. Getting to know these prolific individuals and how they operate on a personal level. I imagine Brett already knew who was who among the packed headline of politicians, attorneys, national organization figureheads and the like, however he wanted us to engage and build our own networks. Friendships that may last beyond a two-day event and into the long future of our shared struggle.
Chief among them was Bryan Perlmutter. He was a calm, unassuming young man wearing a shirt that simply said, “People over money”. There were a few others wearing this black t-shirt with bold lettering circled around him. I would come to find through a series of candid conversations that Mr. Perlmutter had already done more good for NC than most of their leaders had done their entire career. Some of his accolades include building coalitions to oppose budget cuts and tuition hikes as a student at NC State, co-founding the NC Student Power Union, working as the Communications and Development Director for the Youth Organizing Institute, acting as the Development Chair for the Southern Vision Alliance and most notably, Founder and Executive Director of Ignite NC. His arrest in 2013 planted the seeds for what would become the Moral Monday movement which has now become a national campaign. We met a clear-eyed, young (24) impressive man who was nice enough to share tactics with two organizers from SC.
After spending time with a myriad of speakers at the SOLVE conference and enjoying a night out with Ignite NC, I returned home. Fatigued, yet full of hope. I thought, “If more organizations joined to confront issues, maybe there would be a light at the end of the tunnel for my kids.” I also thought about Bryan and his cadre of fired-up activists tackling heavy weighted issues like voter suppression and the HB2 bill. He was fearless, unashamed and ready to speak truth to power.
In the days following, I was encouraged by Brett to nominate him for the Mario Savio Young Activist award. This national award, which carries a cash prize of $6,000, is presented each year to a young person (or persons) with a deep commitment to human rights and social justice and a proven ability to transform this commitment into effective action. Bryan was an ideal candidate. Of course, Brett found it delightful that I obliged. The application process was rigorous and detailed, but my resolve remained intact. There was no question that he and his work were worth supporting. A small token of appreciation and an olive branch for the future.
Yesterday, three months after the application was received, Bryan called to tell me that he won the award and would be flying to California to accept. He was deeply grateful and I told him that he was beyond deserving. Our chat didn’t last very long. He was tied up bringing a new hire up to speed, organizing new student fellowships and working to unify Charlotte in the wake of recent extrajudicial killings. The conversation ended with a tentative reunion scheduled for the New Legacy Project’s Subversive Art Festival Extravaganza Oct. 8.
I don’t expect him to show up but it would be nice to catch up with a new, old friend.
To put our organizing work into context and better understand the legacy we’ve inherited, the SC Progressive Network will explore our ancestors’ radical roots at its 20th fall conference on Oct. 22 in Columbia.
Activists from across the state will meet at the Harbison campus of Midlands Tech for a Network membership meeting 10am – 2pm, to tend to internal business, hear updates from member groups about their projects, and look ahead to the upcoming legislative session.
In the afternoon, we invite the public to join us for a symposium with some of the state’s leading activists and historians. Led by University of South Carolina historian Dr. Bobby Donaldson and political scientist Dr. Sekou Franklin, the session will detail the vanguard role that Modjeska Monteith Simkins and South Carolina’s black activists played during the 1940s in the long struggle for civil rights.
After the Network’s meeting, we invite the public to join us for a symposium with some of the state’s leading activists and historians. All events will take place at the Harbison Campus of Midlands Tech.
The afternoon session – led by University of South Carolina historian Dr. Bobby Donaldson and political scientist Dr. Sekou Franklin – will detail the vanguard role that Modjeska Simkins and South Carolina’s black activists played during the 1940s in the long struggle for civil rights.
The meeting marks the 70th anniversary of the 1946 Southern Negro Youth Congress conference held at the Township in Columbia, a little-remembered but historic gathering. (See event program here.) Simkins did trainings at what was then Harbison Junior College for two dozen young blacks, mostly students, who spent 10 days studying black history, politics, civics, world affairs, and organizing techniques.
Simkins helped establish 11 chapters across the state that turned out over 400 members to the October 1946 weekend conference in Columbia. More than 2,500 people, from Birmingham to New York, filled the Township auditorium with the intention of striking a death blow to Jim Crow.
It was an impressive gathering. Julian Bond’s father came from Atlanta. Angela Davis’ mother came from Birmingham. The legendary Paul Robeson sang. Labor organizers and Communist Party members came from the north, and delegates came from as far away as Latin America and Africa. Our best notes on the conference come from FBI files that reported 170 participants were white, mostly union and peace activists.
Dr. W.E.B. DuBois gave the keynote speech that Sunday at Benedict’s Antisdel Chapel. The speech, Behold the Land, lifted up as among the nation’s best, rings true today. DuBois called on “young women and young men… to lift the banner of humanity… in the midst of people who have yelled about democracy and never practiced it.”
DuBois rose to national prominence in 1905 with the founding of the Niagara Movement that challenged Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist positions on segregation. He was instrumental in the founding of the NAACP in 1909, and the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1937.
The Columbia SNYC conference was the largest human rights event the South had ever seen, with a class analysis of racism and a call for a mulitracial united front. By the time of the Columbia conference, black soldiers were returning from WWII to the hostile welcome of Jim Crow segregation. South Carolina was in the nation’s spotlight for having the last white-only primary, the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party crashing the 1944 national Democratic convention (20 years before the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party), and the blinding of Private Issac Woodard by police at the Batesburg bus station in February 1946.
Erik Gellman’s 2012 book Death Blow to Jim Crow claims that SNYC was more than a precursor to the modern civil rights movement; it was “the most militant interracial freedom movement since Reconstruction, one that sought to empower the American labor movement to make demands on industrialists, white supremacists and the state as never before.”
After WWII, white supremacists used anti-communism to beat back racial equality and labor organizing. We learned in our South Carolina high school history books that “carpet baggers and scalawags induced many of the ignorant and child-like Negroes to turn against the white people,” (Simms-Oliphant) and the Klan arose to beat back the 1870s Reconstruction and save the South.
Seventy years later, white supremacists like Gov. Jimmy Byrnes identified communists as the outsiders leading blacks astray. Simkins was “red-smeared up and down South Carolina,” and iced from the SC NAACP leadership in 1957 by black ministers who chaffed at her strong spirit and militant politics. The red scare effectively ended the militant era of civil rights, and domesticated the modern civil rights movement. That period is now recognized as one led by black ministers beginning in 1954.
DuBois called SNYC’s work the “second Reconstruction,” making the case that the gains of the first Reconstruction had been erased through the whitewashing of history. Now, ironically, 70 years after DuBois bemoaned the erasing of the first Reconstruction, we are studying the lost stories of the second Reconstruction of the 1940s – an astonishing period when the citizenry organized a serious challenge to the status quo – right here in South Carolina.
It is this under-valued people’s history that the Network is committed to lifting up, both at this conference and through its leadership institute the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights. While we’ve only recently discovered the importance of SNYC and Simkins’ deep involvement in that effort, the school is picking up where she left off, teaching similar solutions to sadly similar problems.
The SC Progressive Network and the National Lawyers Committee will hold an election protection workshop on Sept. 16 to prepare volunteers to monitor the upcoming general election. The Network has worked the past three general elections by responding to calls to the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline.
While most of the calls were from confused voters, some reported incidents of voter intimidation and efforts at vote suppression. Some calls were referred to SLED or the Justice Department.
We are seeking volunteers for Election day, as well as on the days leading up to it. Volunteers are needed to deliver signs to the county election boards for placement in the precincts, to monitor the operation of the voting computers, and to report problems at the precincts. A South Carolina Legal Manual prepared by the Election Protection Coalition is available to volunteers that answers a wide range of questions.
The workshop on Sept. 16 is to train volunteers to understand the laws governing elections and how to resolve problems. The training is free, and will be held at the Network’s office at 2025 Marion St., downtown Columbia.
For information or to RSVP, contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or email@example.com.
The SC Progressive Network‘s recently published profile of Sarah Leverette, which is being distributed free in select spots in Columbia – including our office at 2025 Marion St. – is now available for free download here.
The booklet is the final of a set of booklets about three extraordinary South Carolina women: Leverette, human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins, and LGBT advocate Harriet Hancock. The two-year project was made possible by a generous grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, which shares our belief that history is our greatest teacher.
For information about the booklets, call the Network at 803-808-3384 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2014, the SC Progressive Network was awarded a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission to produce a booklet about Modjeska Monteith Simkins. It was distributed free to readers in the Midlands, and was so well received that the Network ordered a second printing.
Last year, the Network received another grant from the Commission for two additional booklets, on gay rights activist Harriet Hancock and legal pioneer Sarah Leverette. The Hancock booklet came out in May; the Leverette booklet will be released in mid-August.
Becci Robbins, the Network’s communications director and author of the booklets, said of the project, “While I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, the booklets evolved into a package that now seems perfectly timed. Besides telling the stories of three phenomenal South Carolina women, they offer a chance to explore racism, sexism, and homophobia—problems continuing to fester in the nation’s addled psyche.
The booklet about Modjeska, whose grandparents were enslaved, reminds us of South Carolina’s grim past – and how it haunts us still. The booklet about Harriet went to press just days before the massacre in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 maimed in a gay nightclub.
And the last booklet about Sarah, who was born on the eve of women’s suffrage in America, comes out as the nation deliberates whether to vote for its first woman president. This historic election has come with the sad reminder in certain news outlets and on social media that misogyny is alive and well.
While the booklets provide no easy answers to the vexing problems we face, they give some historical context to help understand the current social and political climate in America and here at home. And they show the power a single citizen can have, given enough passion and commitment.
My hope is that these booklets will make their way into the hands of girls and young women who will be as moved and impressed as I have been by Modjeska, Harriet, and Sarah. It has been a great privilege to share their stories.”
Questions? Call the Network at 803-808-3384.
Download this booklet to read about Modjeska’s extraordinary life.
Click here to download Harriet Hancock booklet.
The Sarah Leverett booklet is at the printer, and will be available in mid-August.