In what may be the first sign of the NAACP backing away from the activism that marked the tenure of fired Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., organization leaders Saturday postponed a threatened economic boycott of South Carolina.
At war with state officials over the flying of the Confederate battle flag above the Capitol dome, Chavis had threatened in July to strike at the state’s $7.3-billion tourism industry with a black boycott unless the flag comes down.
But still struggling to recover from the controversy surrounding Chavis’ dismissal and faced with splintered local support, national NAACP leaders instead came to this sedate island resort to deliver fiery rhetoric, lead 600 chanting protesters on a two-mile march and then announce that they would wait for legal action to run its course before deciding what further action to take.
In taking a more cautious approach, the organization bowed to the will of some local leaders who had eschewed confrontation in favor of negotiation and compromise. But the retreat from a boycott--accompanied by an apparent attempt by NAACP Chairman William F. Gibson to distance himself from Chavis--also seemed to signal a return to the NAACP’s traditionally more-cautious roots.
Branding the Confederate battle flag a symbol of a vanquished nation that waged war against the United States over the issue of slavery, several speakers characterized the display of the flag over the Statehouse as treasonable and an insult to African Americans.
“If the army that carried that banner into war had won, all of us of African American descent would be slaves today,” Gibson said. “The Confederate flag does not represent any existing sovereign government and shouldn’t fly above this place where laws are made for all South Carolinians.”
As the marchers paraded through Hilton Head, they passed a small gathering of white counter-protesters who waved the banner and jeered.
Unlike a protest in July, which was marred by shouted racial slurs, Saturday’s protest passed without incident. Still, it is clear that the often uncivil war over the officially sanctioned display of Confederate symbols is heating up all over the South.
South Carolina is the only state that still flies the Confederate battle flag, but Georgia and Mississippi have incorporated the star-studded X emblem in their official state banners. Alabama flew the Confederate flag atop its Capitol until last year, when a judge ruled that it violated state law and ordered it taken down.
In Georgia, where an attempt to change the state flag was defeated in the Legislature last year, pressure from blacks and some whites who consider the banner offensive have persuaded a growing number of businesses and local government bodies to stop flying the state flag.
A recent convert was the Atlanta-based Holiday Inn Worldwide. This, in turn, prompted a boycott by angry whites who call the move an attack on white Southern heritage.
Anti-flag forces now have trained their sights on the Coca-Cola Co., which flies the state flag in front of its headquarters in Atlanta.
All of this takes on greater significance as Atlanta prepares to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. The city is trying to present itself to the world as the capital of a harmonious New South and cradle of the civil rights movement. But there is concern that controversy over Confederate symbols will tarnish the image of the city and the region.
Coca-Cola is an Olympics sponsor. And Stone Mountain, a monument that now features the image of Robert E. Lee and that was the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan, will be an Olympics venue.
“It’s become a war on our culture is what it amounts to,” said Dr. William G. Carter, chairman of the South Carolina Council of Conservative Citizens, a right-wing group that opposes removing the Confederate flag. His group plans its own pro-flag rally and march today.
While some members of his organization view efforts to remove the flag as an attack on their history and heritage, Carter said, “From a political standpoint, it is a basic issue of sovereignty.”
He cited polls that show a majority of South Carolinians want the flag to continue to fly atop the Statehouse dome.
After mothballing the flag following the Civil War, South Carolina in 1962 began flying it above the Capitol dome--just below the U.S. and state flags--as a protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning school desegregation. For this reason, many African Americans here believe that the flag represents white resistance to the notion of racial equality and inclusiveness.
But Carter said: “The flag is not costing anybody anything. We have black history month, Martin Luther King Day. We have affirmative action. We have minority set-asides. . . . They (blacks) have been awarded 37 majority black districts in the (state) House and 14 in the Senate. They’ve got a gerrymandered congressional district . . . and single-member districts on the local level. Hell, what else do they want?”
Earl T. Shinholster, interim executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the fight over the flag indeed is a “war.” “Our weapons of choice are the ballot and the buck,” he said. Even so, he and others acknowledge that many people, including African Americans, question whether limited resources should be spent fighting a symbolic battle instead of dealing with issues such as unemployment, crime and poverty.
But speakers at Saturday’s rally, most of whom were either local African American politicians or NAACP leaders, said the government-sanctioned display of the flag cannot be separated from other problems facing black Americans.
“That flag bespeaks the sentiments of the Ku Klux Klan,” said the Rev. H.H. Singleton, first vice president of the state NAACP chapter. “That flag bespeaks the thinking of the neo-Nazis. That red rag bespeaks what the boys like to call ‘our Southern heritage.’ Well, hell, it ain’t mine!”
Gibson and Shinholster insisted that the organization is not backing down from its demand that the flag be removed. But, perhaps showing strain from recent weeks of controversy that threatened his own tenure as chairman, Gibson brusquely told a reporter who asked what will happen next that the NAACP will take whatever actions it sees fit “when we get ready.”
He sharply told a reporter that the organization would not be bound by commitments Chavis had made. “You have to talk to Ben Chavis about (the threatened boycott),” he snapped. “My name is William Gibson.”
Chavis was fired last month because he had secretly entered into a financial settlement with a former employee who claimed she was the victim of sexual harassment and discrimination. He also had been criticized for the more activist, openly confrontational direction in which he was rapidly moving the organization.
In a separate interview, Shinholster said Chavis had been speaking as an individual when he made his boycott threat. The ultimate decision on a boycott belongs to the South Carolina Coalition for Unity and Progress, a coalition that includes the NAACP, he said.
A compromise plan to move the flag to a Confederate monument on the Statehouse grounds failed in the Legislature, but some lawmakers are planning to try again when the Legislature reconvenes in January. In addition, Columbia, S.C., Mayor Bob Coble and a score of business and community leaders have filed a lawsuit against the flag in the state Supreme Court.
This is the decision that Gibson said the NAACP will await before deciding whether to call a boycott.
And Hilton Head City Councilman Bill Ferguson expressed frustration with the lack of local support for the issue, branding many of his constituents “cowards” for failing to attend the rally.