Race is onstage in South Carolina debate

Times Staff Writer

This rural community in the South Carolina midlands has a prosperous face it shows the world.

Orangeburg boasts two shopping malls, several industrial parks, chain hotels just off the interstate and a batch of franchise restaurants. A civic rose garden abuts a neighborhood of homes with broad lawns, wraparound porches and expensive cars in driveways.

But that’s only part of the backdrop for tonight’s first presidential debate.

Those stately homes sit on the mostly white side of town. In the city’s poor black neighborhoods, the odd laundromat and ramshackle corner grocery are spread amid broken-down cars and beat-up furniture left stranded on the buckled sidewalks. A decrepit mobile home park and some clapboard homes -- windows gone, porches collapsed, boards missing -- seem scarcely fit for human habitation.


Those disparities could force an uncomfortable conversation. The issues likely to come up in tonight’s Democratic presidential debate are familiar ones -- the war in Iraq, healthcare, the economy, education. The big difference in South Carolina is race, which overlays just about every policy discussion in the state, as it has since Emancipation and reconstruction.

“Here you have to face issues that candidates shy away from elsewhere,” said state Rep. Bakari T. Sellers, who went to school in Orangeburg and now represents the district next door. “Issues of justice and inequality. Issues of race.”

Sellers, 22, is one of the youngest state lawmakers in the country; he has been courted by virtually all of the Democratic candidates, eager for his support in South Carolina’s early primary.

Sellers’ father, Cleveland, has an indelible role in Orangeburg’s history, a chapter many in this city of 15,000 prefer not to discuss. In February 1968, three black college students were killed by state troopers and 27 were wounded as they protested segregation at a whites-only bowling alley. Most of the victims were shot in the side or back. The only person convicted of a crime was Cleveland Sellers, a veteran civil rights activist sprayed with buckshot. He served seven months in prison on a flimsy riot charge.


The story of father and son might be a parable of racial progress, reflecting how far South Carolina has come since the Orangeburg massacre, as the incident is known. The younger Sellers marveled at the fact that a woman, a Latino and an African American will be among the candidates assembled tonight on the South Carolina State campus, just a few strides from where the shootings took place.

But that parable ignores a harsh reality: If you are black and living in South Carolina, you are more likely to be poor, sick, unemployed, undereducated and politically disenfranchised than if your skin is white.

“When you look at the candidates up on the stage, the whole world will think how far we’ve come,” said Bakari Sellers, who has driven past All Star bowling alley countless times yet never set foot inside. “But if you look just below the surface here in South Carolina, where you have the Confederate flag still flying, where you have such widespread inequality, you see how far we still have to go.”

Democrats placed South Carolina near the front of their presidential nominating calendar to bring diversity to the selection process. The state will vote Jan. 29, giving the winner an important boost heading into the coast-to-coast balloting blitz that comes a week later. (The South Carolina Republican primary is set for Feb. 2.)


For now, the Democratic contest is a three-way fight among Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who grew up in rural Seneca, S.C. He carried the state in his White House run four years ago.

Black voters will have a major say in this first Southern test of Democratic strength, likely accounting for about half the vote. By contrast, blacks cast about 1% of the vote in 2004 in New Hampshire’s leadoff primary.

Obama may be the strongest black presidential candidate ever. But that has not given him the overwhelming edge in South Carolina. The novelty of path-breaking politicians like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Greenville, S.C., native who carried the state in 1984 and 1988, has long since worn away.

“I don’t need a moral victory,” said Earl Thomas, a black history professor shopping at the Prince of Orange Mall here. “I want a solid victory.”


For decades, South Carolina has been a laggard in educational achievement and national measurements of health and affluence. But black residents have it worst of all; any serious examination of the school system, economic opportunity, sickness and mortality can’t help but touch on the yawning gap between South Carolinians based on the color of their skin.

The schools that most black children attend receive less funding than majority white schools, and that is reflected in lower test scores and graduation rates.

African Americans have a higher unemployment rate, lower family incomes and are three times as likely to live below the poverty level as whites, Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political scientist, wrote in a June 2006 research paper. Blacks also are more likely to die of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other ailments.

Those pathologies stem from a state political system that has long diminished the clout of African Americans. For decades, Jim Crow laws and violence thwarted black electoral power. Today, it is a combination of apathy and the calculated drawing of political districts; despite their 30% share of the population, African Americans hold just 35 out of 170 seats in the state Legislature, and no statewide offices.


It was only 15 years ago that South Carolina elected its first black congressman in nearly a century, Democratic Rep. James E. Clyburn. As a college student, he was arrested for sitting at the whites-only counter at Orangeburg’s Rexall Drug Store. Now the No. 3 leader in the House, his endorsement is the most coveted in South Carolina’s Democratic primary.

Speaking from Washington, Clyburn said he hoped tonight’s debate at his alma mater would offer a chance to move past memories of the Orangeburg massacre. “At some point in time you write your history down and vow that part of history should never be repeated,” he said. “Hopefully, this will be the catalyst of that march into the future that allows us, as the song says, to accentuate our positive.”

Bakari Sellers sounded equally optimistic, even as he led a dispiriting tour through Orangeburg’s black neighborhoods. His legislative district lies just west.

It can be frustrating, he said, feeling so impotent in the face of such desperation. But mainly he is hopeful -- perhaps, he said, because he is young and naive. He was elected in November and is finishing his second year of law school. “Hope is the beginning,” Sellers said. “People are thirsty for hope.”


It can’t hurt, he figures, having all those Democratic presidential candidates coming to the state, seeking support, making promises.