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.

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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.

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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.

Memorial services set for Rev. Joe Neal

Rep. Joe Neal at a SC Progressive Network press conference in 2001 launching our campaign for voter-owned elections.

Rev. Joseph H. Neal, who co-founded the SC Progressive Network in 1996, died unexpectedly on Feb. 14 at age 66. Joe served as as the Network’s Chair for 12 years, and continued to lead us as Chair Emeritus until his untimely death. While he represented Lower Richland County in the legislature, he truly represented all who work for justice and equality.He was more than our hero, he was our friend and brother. Joe always provided wise counsel, and taught us that love and compassion are powerful weapons. By example, he also taught us to never give up.

Memorial Service
Sunday, Feb. 19, 2:30pm at Calvary Baptist Church, 130 Walnut St., Chester, SC

Funeral Service
Monday, Feb. 20, 1pm (viewing at 11:30am) at First Nazareth Baptist Church, 2351 Gervais St., Columbia (803.254.6332) Burial will take place at St. John Baptist Church, 230 J.W. Neal Circle, Hopkins, SC.

SC Progressive Network Celebration of Joe’s Life
Tuesday, Feb. 21, 5:30-7pm, Modjeska Simkins House, 2025 Marion St., Columbia.
We will share stories to remember and honor our dear friend. Casual dress; all are welcome.

Keeping Joe’s Spirit Alive
At the Neal family’s request, those wishing to further Joe’s mission of fighting the good fight can make a tax-deductible donation in his name to the SC Progressive Network Education Fund.

Being “business friendly” makes South Carolinians work sick and cheap

Just when you thought South Carolina couldn’t be more business-friendly, the Senate passed a bill on Feb. 8 to ensure that we not only work cheap but also work sick. The bill passed by a 32-8 vote, with six Democrats voting with Republicans.

Introduced every session for the last five years, the bill would prohibit local governments from requiring businesses to provide any employee benefits, such as sick leave. If it becomes law, the “work-sick” requirement will be tacked onto a “work-cheap” law passed in 2002 that bars local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. (South Carolina is one of five states with no minimum wage.)

If it’s hard to see how such legislation benefits ordinary South Carolinians, it’s because that was never the intent.

To put the issue in perspective, at least 145 countries provide paid sick days, with 127 providing a week or more annually. The United States is among the few countries that doesn’t require paid sick leave for all workers (McGill University’s “Work, Family, and Equity Index”), which is what’s prompting cities to act and big business to react.

Both the “work-cheap” and the “work-sick” bills can be traced back to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-funded bill mill where “business-friendly” conservative legislators and corporations craft model state legislation that benefits the corporate bottom line. A paid sick days preemption bill, originally passed in Wisconsin in 2011, was shopped around at an ALEC meeting that year by the National Restaurant Association, and similar bills were subsequently introduced in at least 13 other states, including South Carolina.

The bill was rushed through the Senate in 12 days, and is now on the way to the House, where we need to insure that it is given a thorough public vetting.

The ALEC task force behind the bill is co-chaired by YUM! Brands, Inc., which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Fast food and lodging corporations are leading the fight against sick leave. Not surprisingly, these corporations are among LCI members campaign contributors.

A study by the Food Chain Workers Alliance “The Hands that Feed Us” found that 79 percent of food industry workers do not earn paid sick days. Another study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, found that more than half of all outbreaks of the stomach flu can be linked to sick food service workers. Numerous economic studies show that paid sick days are a benefit to employers who want to retain a skilled and dedicated workforce, save more than it costs in medical expenses, and reduce the impact of communicable diseases.

The “work- sick” bills target cities in Republican-controlled states that might consider sick days ordinances. Ironically, these bill are an example of the very “big government” that these same Republicans rail against.

Imagine that the Hilton Head town council decides that its well-heeled visitors deserve some assurance that they are not being served by sick workers and puts the issue of sick leave to a referendum. This bill would prevent Hilton Head voters from passing an ordinance ensuring that workers who take a few, non-paid, sick days a year not get fired.

Under current law, more than 600,000 people in South Carolina must choose between working sick, staying home with a sick child, or getting paid. To many, making the responsible choice means getting fired. This bill will make sure that nothing changes.

The folks from ALEC, who brought us the photo ID law to restrict who gets to vote, are now pushing legislation to restrict what we get to vote on.

The six Democratic senators who voted to keep you working sick are: Gerald Malloy, Thomas McElveen, Nikki Setzler, Kent Williams, Floyd Nicholson and Glen Reese. Full campaign disclosures on senators voting for this bill to follow.

Brett Bursey is the Executive Director of the SC Progressive Network. Email him at network@scpronet.com.

Thousands brave stormy weather in Columbia to rally in solidarity with people around globe

SC Progressive Network Co-Chair Marjorie Hammock welcomes the overflow crowd at Music Farm, the rally’s rain location. See more photos in our album.

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Thundershowers didn’t dampen the spirits of the thousands who gathered in Columbia on the first day of the new administration. The rally was held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, held in cities across the state and around the globe.

It was more than a rally. It was a call to action. Saturday’s post-rally strategy summit opened with this video from Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter.

It was followed by speakers from some of the summit’s 43 partnering organizations, spoken word artists, gospel, and drumming. The mood was electric.

The extraordinary poet Nikky Finney and Dr. Akan Malici offered powerful moments.

Daniel Deweese of the New Legacy Project challenged the young people in the crowd to get busy and “dream dangerously.”

The day concluded with participants breaking into issue caucuses and planning next steps.

Follow-up meetings are being planned for Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville. Bookmark the Network’s web site to stay in touch. If haven’t signed up yet, subscribe to our e-list.

Finally, please read Meeghan Kane‘s piece and watch Betty Benns‘ video at Auntie Bellum. It will inspire you.

Keep the faith. As the James Brothers reminded us on Saturday, “all things are possible, if you only believe.”

Amen.

Message to enraged and newly engaged Network members

Like the rest of the world, the SC Progressive Network is coming to grips with the new social and political reality since the election. We’ve mourned. We’ve raged. Now we’re moving to the next stage: organizing like our lives depended on it. We are glad that you’ve joined us.

Progressives must work collaboratively and strategically to map a way forward – together. These perilous times offer an opportunity to grow the revolution of social values the Network has been working toward for 20 years. It is going to take discipline, hard work, and a lot of help. We need your time, your talent, your energy, your ideas, and your financial support. (Become a member by clicking here. Already a member but want to make a donation? Click here.)

We have an influx of new members to the Network, and a renewed interest from organizations who are in the process of re-joining or becoming members for the first time. Interest on social media also has spiked. (If you haven’t already, join us on Twitter and Facebook. You can also view video clips of Network events and rallies on our YouTube channel.)

Columbia’s November meeting attracted some 140 people, so many that we had to change our meeting space. We may have to do the same in December; check the calendar when we send it next week for the meeting location.

To accommodate our growth spurt, and to find ways to engage our new members, we are expanding our meeting schedule so that those who can’t make a regular monthly meeting can pick a different day and time and get together for a breakfast or lunch meeting, or for an after-work or Sunday afternoon social. We will solicit comments from our members and implement our broader calendar in January.

We are in the beginning stages of organizing an event for SC folks who are not going to Washington to protest the inauguration. We’ll be talking about it at our next chapter meetings. Ideas welcome. We may model it after the InHogural ball we held to celebrate Gov. Nikki Haley’s taking the helm in 2011.

inhogural_low_resTo newcomers, we welcome you with gratitude and great hope for building a broader and more united force to resist the rising tide of oppression and fascism. Please feel free to call or email our office with your questions or suggestions, or to get assigned a task. Meanwhile, please visit our web site to see the projects we’re working on and ways you can get involved.

We wish you all peace during the the coming holidays. If you’re in Columbia, please join us for our annual celebration of Modjeska Monteith Simkins’ birthday on Dec. 5 at her home, 2025 Marion St. The casual drop-in between 5:30-7pm is open to all.

Onward!

4The November Network meeting in Columbia attracted such a large crowd we had to move to a larger space. More pics here.

Keeping Simkins’ fighting spirit alive, graduates of Modjeska School talk about lessons learned

7At 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.

Tracking racial profiling and the militarization of cop shops in SC – and how YOU can help!

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.

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Kyle Criminger (left) and Rep. Joe Neal lead discussion on racial profiling project at the Network’s fall retreat. See video below.

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 fought for publicly financed elections. It’s still a good idea.

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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.”

Greenville County ordered to permit college students to register to vote

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.”

furman_caseFurman student and plaintiff Sulaiman Ahmad, Rev. Carol Hill, Network Director Brett Bursey, and Greenville NAACP President Rev. J.M. Flemming at the Greenville Court House before the Oct. 6 hearing.

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.”