S.C. County Mirrors Gulf Between Races in the South : Leadership: Blacks in the majority begin to wield political clout; whites react angrily. Dialogue is difficult.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 20 years, the Old Fashioned Days festival has been the biggest event of the year in tiny Kingstree. Downtown stores rolled back prices, and people paraded through town in Colonial (or otherwise "old-fashioned") dress.

Not everyone enjoyed the festivities, though. To some blacks, the mere thought of celebrating olden times was offensive, summoning images of days when most Americans of African descent were chattel.

They drew no pleasure from the spectacle of Confederate flags lofted above the streets of their town. They gritted their teeth when black sanitation workers trailed behind horses in the parade, cleaning up the droppings. They cringed when black women paraded in "Aunt Jemima" attire and black men posed lazily in overalls in the backs of hay wagons for the amusement of the assembled throngs.

Many African Americans stayed away and criticized the event among themselves. But nobody tried to change or stop it until James Franklin put his foot down. Franklin, the superintendent of the overwhelmingly black Williamsburg County school system, declared this year that the school district would play no part in the annual October festival.

White residents were flabbergasted. Franklin's decree set off a controversy that exposed deep tears in the social fabric and revealed a community struggling awkwardly, like much of the South, to come to terms with change.

The desperately poor rural county in South Carolina's tobacco region has a population that is 65% black, but only recently have African Americans begun flexing their political strength. Most of the current top elected officials in the county are black.

Because the bulk of the taxes still are paid by whites, who remain the largest employers and landowners, the races have been plunged into an uneasy coexistence.

"When blacks went into power and started controlling the (public) money, that's when they (whites) went berserk," said Keith Hunter, a black minister who is running for a seat on the county school board.

Even before Franklin's decree, many whites were clearly on edge, the most obvious manifestation being an attempt by the small, nearly all-white town of Hemingway, S.C., to secede from Williamsburg County.

It would be unfair to suggest that the county is a powder keg. No riots seem imminent, and no one soon expects to see crosses burning on the courthouse lawn.

What is going on here is subtle. But what is going on here says much about the depth of racial power struggles, especially in the changing South.

Franklin, who became only the second African American to run the county school system when he was appointed in 1991, is a burly man with a serious demeanor, a graying beard and wire-rimmed aviator glasses. He sees his tenure so far as more of a trial than a triumph.

"We have a slave mentality here," said Franklin, whose time in office has been studded with so many controversies that he contends whites are trying to force him to resign. "People don't want to see African Americans in positions of authority."

As he sees it, his troubles began early last year when, shortly after he became superintendent, he learned of a white school principal who maintained segregated classrooms. One class contained only black boys.

"They went to physical education three to five times a day," he said. "They'd give the boys a basketball, and out of sight, out of mind."

Some classes were predominantly white, which Franklin said should not have been the case in a school with such a disproportionately black student body. Whites fleeing desegregated schools had left the district 88% black.

The principal maintained she grouped the students according to ability, not race. But white parents from all over the county ran van-pools to take their children there, some even pulling their children out of expensive, all-white private academies in order to send them to the school.

"There were opportunities to integrate those students," Franklin said. "That infuriated me."

It became a major controversy when Franklin reassigned the principal, who happened to be the wife of a school board member. "That's when it all started as far as my (soured) relationship with a significant portion of white people in the county," he said.

Franklin's contention about the area's "slave mentality" to the contrary, it is not as if Williamsburg County had never before seen a black man in a position of authority.

For 17 years, the county had a powerful black state representative in the person of B.J. Gordon Jr., but disenchanted, politically active blacks say his power was most often exercised in behalf of himself and his political cronies.

Gordon allegedly ran a political machine in tandem with the late Frank McGill, a former mayor of Kingstree and longtime state senator whose family had been powerful in Williamsburg County for three centuries.

With Gordon supplying black votes and McGill supplying the white votes and financial support, the candidates they pushed--both white and black--were considered unbeatable.

Gordon was convicted in 1991 on charges of taking a bribe. An appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that the judge had given incorrect jury instructions. A retrial, scheduled for this month, has been postponed while Gordon undergoes radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

Jim Fitts, the editor of a now-defunct black newspaper in the area, wrote a column in 1988 in which he bluntly accused Gordon and McGill of corruption.

"I will say to you, without fear of contradiction, if every black in Williamsburg County would start stealing today and steal every day for the rest of their lives, they could not steal as much as those two have stolen during their time in power," he wrote.

Under South Carolina's archaic criminal libel statute--which since has been overturned--the politicians had Fitts arrested and thrown in jail. The charges were later dropped after Fitts became a cause celebre, winning national publicity.

Fitts is now part of a small cadre of black activists and politicians that stands in perpetual opposition to the remnants of the Gordon-McGill machine.

In the early 1980s, this group, which included old friends of Gordon who had grown disenchanted with his brand of leadership, began electing independent black candidates to office.

"When the elected leadership started to change in the early '80s--when black people started to exercise their powers to vote and elect black leaders--that's when (white people) started to complain about inept administration," Fitts said. "When the leadership was white, everybody was satisfied with being in Williamsburg County and with the leadership, or with the lack of leadership."

Jenny Lyn Preacher, president of the Williamsburg County Chamber of Commerce, agrees that many whites are dissatisfied with black political control, but "the issue is not with color but with qualifications," she said.

She acknowledged that there have been white officeholders who "did not do the job right," but she added: "The majority of whites feel it's great that blacks hold public office, but when they hold that office it should be a qualified candidate."

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Back in 1983 the people of Hemingway first began to talk of seceding. The county had consolidated schools that year, bringing 200 additional black students from other parts of the county into Hemingway. The black population at Hemingway High School went from 55% to 75%.

This came soon after the county sheriff, the first black person elected to the position, had come under bitter fire from whites over performance of his duties.

After several white inmates had been beaten and assaulted by black inmates at the jail, the weekly Kingstree News editorialized that the sheriff had proven himself "incapable of handling the complexities of the position." Whites publicly despaired of defeating him at the polls because of the county's demographics.

There also were complaints about the administration of county government, grousing that the men and women in power worked for the benefit of other parts of the county and ignored Hemingway, one of the county's richest areas and therefore a large source of tax dollars.

Black officials such as school board President Al White contend just the opposite. He said Hemingway received a disproportionate amount of attention and tax dollars over the past decade for such facilities as new classrooms and a new gymnasium, in part to appease disgruntled whites.

A 1984 secession referendum for Hemingway and an adjoining area fell just short of the necessary two-thirds majority. A second election was ordered in 1985 after voting irregularities were found, but it also failed.

Now Hemingway is preparing for another vote, on Jan. 18.

"It's a pure tax thing," said Wesley Kennedy, a Hemingway banker and leader of the secession movement. He said the town wants to become part of Florence County because that county has a much lower tax rate. That Florence County is predominantly white and that their children would be able once again to attend predominantly white public schools is pure coincidence, he said.

This time secession proponents have shaved off from the secession area a largely black, rural section where voters opposed secession; they won't have a say in the Jan. 18 balloting.

The town is facing three lawsuits challenging its right to secede. One of the lawsuits, filed by the school district, contends that secession would resegregate Williamsburg County schools and put a higher tax burden on the rest of the county.

It also contends that because Hemingway would take three schools with it to Florence County, more than a thousand black students who live outside of town but who attend Hemingway schools would have to be bused across the county to other schools.

Another lawsuit was filed by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. It alleges that the annexation of such an overwhelmingly white area will dilute black voting strength in Florence County.

The third lawsuit, filed by a black citizens group, challenges Hemingway's refusal to annex a black area, which presumably would make it harder for secession proponents to get a two-thirds majority vote.

For the issue to win, two-thirds of the area's 2,503 voters must approve it. At the same time, a majority of Florence County voters must cast ballots to approve annexing the area. Opponents hope a judge will issue an injunction blocking the election.

All Kennedy will say about the campaign is that opponents are wrong when they accuse the town of racism.

"It's just charge after charge after charge," he said. "It's just real easy to holler racism rather than studying the issues."

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When activists such as Fitts, black politicians such as White, and others such as local NAACP President Joe Brown hear whites talk of inept county administrators, their ears translate the complaints into a racist lament about the passing of power.

From their view, whites ran the county for the benefit of the white minority.

"We were fighting for years to try to get a black worker in the courthouse," Fitts said. "If you had one in there, he was the janitor. When the (first black) treasurer was elected, she hired (blacks). When the supervisor was elected, he hired (blacks). That's when they started having problems."

Even decisions made by black officials that do not concern hiring workers or expenditures of tax money can prove perplexing and alienating to whites. Franklin's decision that the school district would not take part in this year's Old Fashioned Days festival--its marching bands played a key role--is an example.

"It really was a shock," Preacher said. "When something had been going on for 20 years and you never heard anything, I never had any idea that there was any problem."

That, some say, illustrates how wide the gulf is between the races: Blacks and whites don't talk to each other.

Franklin contends that it is more than lack of communication; he contends that it is fear, because whites hold all the economic cards.

"There are a lot of African American people here like me who want to say something but because of their position they won't say anything," he said.

During the annual festival, merchants sell merchandise at "old-fashioned" prices and encourage workers to participate in the parade in costume. But since parade organizers do not force anyone to participate or do not dictate what they wear, Preacher was surprised that anyone could call the way blacks were portrayed racist.

But Franklin sees it differently. The "slave mentality" that he believes suffuses the county affects both whites and poorly educated, economically dependent blacks, he said.

"If I live on somebody else's farm, I'm a sharecropper or a tenant farmer," he said. "(When) my boss or my massa or my landlord says: 'I want you to walk behind the horse and clean up the droppings,' unless I want to give up my house and livelihood, I'm going to pick up the droppings, and my kids are going to march in that parade."

The decision to pull the school system out of the festival should have been made, "a long time ago," he said.

Blacks had not made an issue of the festival before then, Fitts said, because "the people were complacent. People were waiting for a leader with enough gall and expertise to make a statement and back it up."

In August, a chance to enhance race relations seemed to go by the boards. Monuments to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall were unveiled at the county courthouse. But White said that other than politicians and reporters, the only whites to attend the ceremony were "a Roman Catholic nun and a blind man with a dog."

Franklin complained that the monuments were vandalized even before they were unveiled and that street signs put up on roads renamed for King and Marshall were shot to pieces.

"One of the problems here in the county is that we have whites who will come to us privately and agree with us, and they'll feel very strongly about it," said Pearl Brown, the county treasurer. "But getting them to come out openly and take a stand is almost unheard of." She said they are afraid of being ostracized by other whites.

Then came the Old Fashioned Days controversy.

Preacher has initiated talks between the Chamber and black leaders in hopes that problems can be ironed out before next year's festival.

The Chamber also will participate for the first time in this year's Christmas parade, which is sponsored yearly by the NAACP and typically has little participation from whites.

"We're not going to be able to agree on everything," she said, contending that blacks can be too sensitive about some things, such as the Confederate flag, which she sees as a part of the region's history that should be accepted for what it is.

"I'm truly sorry for what happened 100 years ago, but I had no part of that and we have got to leave that alone," she said. "What we have is today, where we are now, and our future. And it's hard to go forward when you continue to go back and try the injustices of 100 years ago. . . . It's going to take some giving on both sides."

But at least the sides are talking, which has never been done before.

"Maybe we've hit the bottom of the barrel and we can turn things around now," she said.

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