Bobby Donaldson: “The legacy of Modjeska Simkins is not dead”

In 1938, just days before her 39th birthday, Modjeska Simkins drew up plans for her own funeral. “For reasons known only to myself,” she wrote directives for a simple ceremony to be carried out “in the event of my demise.” It included a list of hymns and readings, and a note to the mortician to refuse floral arrangements.

We can only guess what prompted her to write the document, which USC history professor Dr. Bobby Donaldson shared at this year’s Modjeska party, an annual birthday celebration the SC Progressive Network holds at her Columbia home. He said it appears nobody ever read it, perhaps because it was buried in the piles of books and papers that filled her home.

This much is clear: there was much ado and flowers aplenty when Modjeska died in 1992. And for good reason.

Dr. Bobby Donaldson speaks from the back porch of the Modjeska Simkins House.

“Fortunately for us,” Donaldson said, “Modjeska did not die in 1938. If she had, we would not have a SC NAACP, established in 1939. If she had died, we would not have had an extraordinary letter written in 1944 to the governor, Olin D. Johnston, demanding he debate the merits of white supremacy. If she had died in 1938, we would not have the Modjeska in 1946 who helps organize one of the most extraordinary youth gatherings in the history of this country.”

He ticked off a list of things that would not exist were not for Modjeska, including the Harbison Training Institute that taught progressive activists in the late 1940s (with a curriculum mirroring that of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights) and the 1951 Briggs v Elliott case, a critical component of what would become Brown v Board in 1954.

Donaldson ended with a call to action. “The legacy of Ms. Simkins is not dead,” he said. “And if we ever needed a Modjeska Simkins movement inspired by her legacy, you look around this world; we need it now.”

As part of the Network’s commitment to educating and mobilizing that movement, we are preparing to reprint Network Communications Director Becci Robbins’ booklet Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary. It will include a new section with historical details discovered since the original printing.

The booklet, published in 2014 through a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, has been circulated widely in the Midlands and at no cost to readers. We’d like to keep the booklet free. You can help make that possible.

To date, we have received a generous donation from Historic Columbia and a number of individual supporters, raising $1,700 of the $3,900 we need.

Please help us reach our goal by donating at our secure site or by calling our office at 803-808-3384.

To view more photos from this year’s party, see our album.

Listen to Modjeska Simkins School graduate Vikki Perry in this clip.

Revolutionaries to gather at intersection of art and activism

Dream dangerously and party like a revolutionary during two days of art, culture, education, entertainment, and activism at the 2nd Subversive Art Festival Extravaganza (SAFE 2.0) on Nov. 3 and 4 in Columbia.

New Legacy Project, the youth coordinating body of SC Progressive Network, invites the public to join them for a weekend of education, arts, and culture that is intended to entertain, engage, and empower.

“SAFE 2.0 is a space to challenge the limits of what is presented as the only ‘workable’ systems of organizing our society,” said Daniel Deweese, New Legacy Project co-founder and SAFE organizer.

Festivities will kick off on Friday, Nov. 3, with a Find the Power Rally from 6pm to 8:30pm at the SC State House. The rally will begin with a guided tour of the grounds with recent graduates of the Modjeska Simkins School giving a people’s history of the monuments. It will close with a discussion on ways to build power to create positive change for the future of South Carolina. All are welcome to this free event.

On Saturday beginning at 5pm, join artists and activists for an art and culture festival at Tapp’s Art Center, 1644 Main St. There will be live music, spoken word performances, comedy, visual art, education, camaraderie, and more! Tickets for SAFE 2.0 are $7.

Connor Brunson performs at last year’s SAFE festival.

Art changes people, and people change the world. There is a long tradition of art meeting activism to create social and political change – even in South Carolina. With the recent emboldening of racist, bigoted, nationalistic, and misogynistic sentiment, it is increasingly important to present a united front against oppressive systems that silence and subjugate marginalized communities, especially when these systems are working for a miniscule percentage of Americans. Art and activism will always intersect in a way that educates and empowers people to effect change. The aim of SAFE 2.0 is to do just that.

The New Legacy Project values the collective wisdom and discipline of the progressive organizers who came before us working for radical, structural change. Our main objective is mentorship, education, and organizing young leaders who will continue building our inter-generational, multi-racial, multi-issue statewide popular movement for racial, economic and social justice and equality. To learn more about New Legacy Project and upcoming events, please see their Facebook page.

Network solidifies plans, hones strategy at fall retreat

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter spent the weekend at our retreat, leading group discussions and spearheading the formation of a development committee.

•  •  •

The SC Progressive Network‘s annual fall retreat last weekend at beautiful Santee State Park was one of the best meetings we’ve had. Since our founding in 1996, we have been steadily building a movement for social justice, holding true to the “revolution of values” that Dr. King called for. Over the past two decades (and the years of grass roots organizing at GROW that preceded the Network) we have built and maintained a solid framework for the coalition. Now we’re putting muscle on it.

Our analysis, strategy and tactics are holding under fire and proving themselves sound. We are developing public policy, crafting and passing legislation, and winning targeted races. Our success is due to perseverance, principled work, and trust built over time. The retreat was a chance for us to take stock of where we are and to map a path forward, with immediate and longer-term plans.

One of our primary goals now is to educate allies to the reality that we cannot fix the systemic problems that plague us with the tools that created them. We have to build our base of power outside the existing structures. Our strategy recognizes that to make and sustain real change, we must remain disciplined and think long term. We have an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of the crises ravaging the two-party system and the corruption crippling the state’s political elite.

The Network’s core programs – our Democracy project and Racial Justice project – have gained traction in recent months. Each has created toolkits with data that can be customized with local information to organize across South Carolina. The toolkits are in the process of being updated to reflect the latest work that has been done and refined at the retreat. When they are posted, we will send out links.

Finally, we want to congratulate and welcome aboard the four candidates elected to the executive committee: Sarah Keeling, Carole Singletary, Katie Shulz, and Shannon Herin. Nice to have more womenfolk at the helm. We also want to thank everyone who worked to make the retreat such a success, including Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Wendy Brawley, our New Legacy Project volunteers, and everyone else who made time to join us. It was a great weekend.

We will post a more detailed retreat summary soon with action items and ways for you to get involved, wherever you are in the state and whatever issue you want to take on.

See more retreat photos in our PHOTO ALBUM.

Building The Wall; it’s more than a play

Brett Bursey
Executive Director, SC Progressive Network

When the LA Times ran its review of Building the Wall last March, the headline said the play “imagines the unimaginable.” That was then.

When the Network was invited to a preview performance of the play at Trustus Theatre in April, I remember the conversations speculating as to whether Donald Trump would still be president in October, and whether the wall would still be an issue.

Six months later, Trump is still president and, as of Aug. 31, the Department of Homeland Security has awarded contracts to four companies to build prototypes of the wall. The winner of the contest will get a slice of the $1.8 billion in the president’s 2018 budget to begin building it. The budget also includes funding for 10,000 new beds in private prisons to house those without the proper papers.

In South Carolina, four counties have signed 287g contracts with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with the chilling acronym of ICE. Law enforcement authorities in Charleston, Lexington, York and Horry counties have agreed to make deputies in their jails available for training by ICE, and have them carry out immigration enforcement duties, like checking the immigration status of everyone booked into their county jails. In addition, deputized officers have broad discretion in the decision to issue a Notice to Appear (NTA) to initiate removal proceedings or negotiate a Voluntary Departure.

The counties then call ICE to come and get undocumented prisoners, who are then sent – often after just 48 hours, to a private prison in Lumpkin, Ga. The Stewart Detention Center is the largest of the more than 400 detention centers across the nation that get paid to house those suspected of being undocumented. Operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the for profit prison averages $97,647 federal tax dollars a day at $60.50 a head. It’s the largest employer in in the county, accounting for half its annual budget. ICE’s detention budget was $1.7 billion last year.

North Charleston police have been reported profiling Hispanic-looking drivers, stopping them for failure to signal a turn, weaving or other pretexts. If the driver doesn’t have a driver’s license, it’s off to the county jail, followed by a call to ICE, and then on to Georgia. This is usually without the benefit of legal counsel, and often without notification to family members.

The chair of Charleston County Council, when asked about the county jail’s agreement with ICE, said that he thought it was mandatory to cooperate with ICE and didn’t know that the sheriff had signed a memorandum agreeing to take prisoners as well as a per-head payment for detaining them.

The sheriff of Lexington County recently told a local audience that he signed on to the ICE detention program for community safety. A local resident pointed out that it was a policy matter, and that county council uses his tax money to pay the jail’s upkeep and the salary of his officers.

The Network has partnered with the Grassroots Alliance for Immigrant Rights (GAIR) to provide support and services to the families being torn apart by this administration’s anti-immigrant policies, financed in part by our county taxes. The organizing training and policy education GAIR is doing to empower leadership from the impacted communities is important. Contact the SC Progressive Network for more information or find GAIR on Facebook.

We encourage progressive citizens to inform and challenge their county councils and sheriffs, where the ICE agreements are in effect or being considered, because the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant campaign is unwarranted, cruel political posturing that is unworthy of a great nation.

Building the Wall opens with a prisoner in an orange jump suit being interviewed by a professor who asks if he is a racist. As the play unfolds, you realize that he was a regular guy, just doing a job in a private prison where ICE was sending more and more immigrants without papers. As we realize what the prisoner has done, we are confronted with the horror of how ordinary citizens become instruments of evil.

As Trump’s policies destroy real lives and dreams, the descent into the unimaginable becomes more than a play. These are your tax dollars at work; this is what your complicit silence builds.

•  •  •

The Network is sponsoring the run of Building the Wall at Trustus, with two benefit performances Oct. 5 and 7.

Oct. 5, 7:30pmPremiere – Buy tickets HERE

SHOW CANCELLED Oct. 7, 2pmMatinee

Light refreshments, open bar. The one-hour show will be followed by Q&A with GAIR Director Laura Cahue and members of the impacted community. Get an inside view of what’s happening on the ground in South Carolina. For more information or to RSVP by phone, call the Network’s office at 803-808-3384.

Proceeds to benefit the Grassroots Alliance for Immigrant Rights and the SC Progressive Network

Reconnect, recharge, recommit

SC Progressive Network’s
Annual Fall Retreat
Sept. 29-Oct. 1

Santee State Park

Join grassroots activists from across the state for the SC Progessive Network’s fall retreat, a weekend of fellowship, networking, and organizing. This is our first overnight meeting since politics imploded on the national and state level. The landscape has shifted dramatically, and we will take advantage of new opportunities while addressing new challenges.

Friends and allies will gather at Santee State Park at its autumnal finest to talk politics, build alliances, sharpen strategies, and recharge our batteries.

Register NOW

Network projects are gaining traction and making great strides. We’ll hear updates on their work, and do break-out sessions for deeper dives in each.

Reps from our Network member groups will share their victories and challenges, and offer ways for you to join or collaborate.

We’ll get the latest scoop from the Network’s government watchdog, John Crangle, who reporters are calling for information and the governor and attorney general are calling for counsel. Since writing the book Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement, he is the state’s go-to guy for insight into the legislature.

We’ll get a legislative forecast from Progressive Caucus members Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Sen. Mike Fanning. We’ll discuss bills we are introducing, tracking, and backing. Find out about our inside/outside strategy – how it is working and how we are winning.

Come for a day or the whole weekend. We promise you will leave more energized and inspired than when you arrived.

Friday is for early registration, beginning at 4pm; dinner on your own. Once you’ve registered, we will send program details and a list of things to bring.

Cabins, tents, and RV options for overnight guests. Children welcome. Check Facebook event page for updates.

Register HERE

Questions? Call 803-808-3384 or email

Offensive monuments: should they stay or should they go?

Becci Robbins
Communications Director, SC Progressive Network

Since white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville and shocked an addled nation, there is growing demand to take down offensive monuments in public spaces. Pressure is building in South Carolina as well, so we thought it time to revisit the SC Progressive Network‘s position, drafted after the Confederate flag was moved off the State House grounds and amid subsequent calls to remove the Ben Tillman statue.

Our position remains that instead of removing offensive monuments we reinterpret them to accurately reflect the state’s painful history. As we said in 2015, “taking them down will not change the past, nor will it help future generations understand and change the institutionalized racism they inherit. 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.”

This is a teachable moment, a chance for a deeper look at these edifices we usually pass by without notice. Instead of erasing history, we should expand our understanding of it. When and why were the monuments erected? Whose interests did they serve and at what price? And who, really, are these figures occupying places of honor on the State House lawn? Chances are most South Carolinians don’t know.

We understand that our position is not shared among all of our members or allies, and we respect those who disagree. There isn’t a single valid way to respond to the assault on our shared values of equality and fairness. But whatever your beliefs, please don’t let your outrage misdirect your energy. There is critical work to be done in South Carolina to address the sources rather than the symptoms of our problems.

Our State House is littered with statues honoring the architects of systemic racism, codified in our very constitution. But we cannot wave a magic wand to make the monuments disappear. In fact, only our lawmakers can take them down, and then by an unlikely two-thirds vote, thanks to the Heritage Act they passed to ensure their enduring control.

The question activists must ask ourselves is not whether offensive monuments should come down, but how much time and energy are we willing to spend to that end.

Network bumper sticker, circa 1996

At its founding conference in 1995, the Network identified racism as the state’s most crippling and pressing problem. We joined other South Carolinians of good will and spent the better part of two decades fighting to get the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.

But all the years of heated debate and public protest did not move a Republican-controlled legislature unwilling to risk alienating its conservative base. The rallies, marches, editorials, town halls, national boycott – all fell on deaf ears.

It took the murder of nine people in a Charleston church for lawmakers to finally take the flag down. Even when the dead included one of their own, Sen. Clemeta Pinckney, debate on the floor was vicious and divided. Ultimately, it was political expediency during a campaign season that made them finally furl the flag. Photos of the killer posing with a Confederate flag forced the GOP to address an issue they could no longer ignore or defend. Make no mistake; it was pressure from the national party, not a moral epiphany, that moved Gov. Nikki Haley to act.

She is the perfect example of the liability in removing symbols of white supremacy while leaving its systems and structure untouched. Lawmakers can proudly claim the moral high ground (finally) while continuing to implement policies that disenfranchise and marginalize the least of us.

Watching the flag finally furled was a triumph, to be sure. But it came at a price. And what did it solve?

Since the flag came down, material conditions for the state’s most vulnerable citizens remain unchanged. Access to health care is uneven and inadequate. Public schools still struggle to offer our children minimally adequate education. The State House is embroiled in yet another corruption scandal. We are suffering the fallout from an irresponsible nuclear boondoggle that reflects a business-friendly political culture run amok. The state’s roads and dams are crumbling because lawmakers have starved infrastructure in the name of low taxes. The list is way too long.

So, yes, be outraged about the monuments, but choose your battles wisely. Statues never killed anyone; but public policy does so every single day.

Furthermore, symbols say a lot about who we are. As Modjeska Monteith Simkins said about the Confederate flag: Leave the damn rag up there. I’d rather see the Klan in sheets than in suits. As long as that flag flies from on top of that building you know what’s in the hearts of the people inside.”

• • •

The Network applauds those working to correct the historical narrative in South Carolina. To date, we know of plans for a poetry reading in front of the monument to Marion Sims, a visitation of the Tillman and Strom Thurmond statues by the New Legacy Project, and graduates of the Modjeska School are producing a tour of monuments on the State House grounds that is a departure from the one handed out in the gift shop.

Got nuclear mail? Here’s why

You may be one of the 700,000 SCE&G customers scratching their heads over getting a legal document in the mail that appears to be from the SC Public Service Commission. The lengthy notice, packed with dense legalese, lays out in blunt language SCANA’s plans to keep charging you for the next 60 years for the cost of building and tearing down their ill-conceived investment in two nuclear reactors.

The notice reads like it could have come from the Sierra Club, as it casts the power company in a rather bad light. But that’s unlikely because the mailing cost more than a quarter-million dollars.

What happened? The power company had asked for a PSC hearing on getting its money out of ratepayers after abandoning the reactors. State law requires utilities to notify their customers prior to hearings on rate changes. Those notices are usually sent as a little slip of paper along with your bill. In this case, there was no billing cycle to meet the deadline for notice of the hearing, so the power company sent the notice as a separate mailing.

Anyone paying attention to the inner workings of the power company has noticed that its  corporate attorneys are recent hires. It’s a good guess that someone will be looking for a new job, as a post card with a “notice of hearing” would have sufficed. The 700,000 letters to outraged customers made it clear that SCANA plans to continue to bill our grandchildren for electricity they will never receive from a plant that will never be built.

The SC Progressive Network will file to be a party in the PSC’s decision to bill the ratepayers for SCANA’s bad investment. “We will target the business-friendly religion that South Carolina lawmakers worship at the expense of reason and fairness,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “This mess we’re now in is a direct product of a political culture that allows regulatory agencies to put profits over people.”

We won! Help us celebrate a rare victory in Lower Richland

“You’re doing God’s work,” Mary Posey told Network Director Brett Bursey when he called to share the good news that the small plot of land in Lower Richland she started paying for in 1997 was finally hers. On Aug. 8, she signed papers to make it official.

Nobody thought it would happen. The two took on one of the county’s largest landowners and won, after months of work and against all odds.

Brett Bursey and Mary Posey, holding the plat to her land.

When Rep. Joe Neal died suddenly in February, the SC Progressive Network made a rare endorsement to support Wendy Brawley in the special election to fill his seat. We wanted to ensure that Rep. Neal’s replacement would continue to advance the work and vision he shared with the Network, an organization he helped found.

Brawley’s main opponent was Heath Hill, who inherited 68 square miles of Lower Richland from his father, Harold Hill, who died in 2002.

During the campaign, Bursey learned of Heath Hill’s reputation for questionable ethics. When he discovered that the mother of a longtime mutual friend was one of his victims, Bursey paid Ms. Posey a visit. They made this three-minute video, which was circulated online and on CDs across the district.

It was a brave move for the woman who didn’t want to make waves and had intended to let the matter go. Bursey, however, could not. After Brawley won the election, he went on a campaign to pressure Hill to follow through on the deal his father made with Posey in 1997, when she began making payments on the land she wanted to buy for her grandchildren.

When the elder Hill died, Posey owed $300 on the $4,920 debt. While the contract required Posey to pay off the note in 18 months or forfeit the land and money, Hill told her to pay what she could as she was able. But when she tried to make the final payment to Heath Hill, he said she’d waited too long. He kept the money and the land.

Without bank records to prove payment, lawyers advised that there was no legal recourse. But never one to give up without a fight, Bursey went to Hill directly and asked him to do the right thing, and shared with him some of the stories and research he’d uncovered during the campaign. Bursey then took the information to Hill’s attorney.

On Aug. 8, Posey took $300 to the attorney’s office, signed the deed and, after 20 years, took ownership of the land.

•  •  •

We think this is an excellent reason for a party!

Help us celebrate a rare win over big money. Join friends on Tuesday evening Aug. 22 beginning at 6:30 for a casual get-together at the Fish Line restaurant – owned by Posey’s daughter – at 4201 Bluff Rd. The event is free, but you can enjoy a fish dinner for $10 if you RSVP by Aug. 18. The restaurant, which is usually closed on Tuesdays, needs a head count.

Call 803-808-3384 or email for information or to make reservations. You can also share/RSVP on Facebook.

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.

•  •  •

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

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