A march to strike Dixie's banner

History: Charleston's chief executive will vote with his feet in the matter of flying the South's battle flag over the state Capitol.

April 01, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

When Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley laces up his Nike Air Max running shoes tomorrow, he will forgo his customary solitary jog along the Cooper River for a 113-mile march to Columbia to protest the flying of the Confederate battle flag atop the state Capitol.

He'll be leading thousands of South Carolinians -- including Bank of America chief Hugh McColl Jr., novelist Pat Conroy and members of Hootie and the Blowfish -- who will join the mayor's four-day trek to the steps of the State House.

Their aim is to demonstrate to a recalcitrant state legislature that its refusal to remove the flag from the gold dome is "out of step" with the majority of voters.

Riley's walk is not the first time this white Irish Catholic lawyer has been out front on issues pertaining to race.

Twenty years ago, his leadership in this arena led critics to nickname him LBJ -- Little Black Joe, said Bill Regan, the city attorney of Charleston and a close friend of Riley's.

"For 24 years, he presided over an equally divided -- white and black -- City Council, and from his earliest days in office, he has sought to bring this community together," said Regan, who attended law school with Riley.

"That's one of the major reasons he ran for office, to heal racial divisions in this state."

As Charleston's mayor, Riley has changed the face of the city, while preserving its historic charm. He brought palmetto palms and decorative lampposts to the streets of Charleston.

The city has built a maritime center and a baseball park and integrated public housing into Charleston's cityscape. Riley helped lure composer Gian Carlo Menotti to re-create his Spoleto arts festival in Charleston.

Riley said the idea for tomorrow's march came during a meeting with businessmen. Many civic leaders, from chief executives to college presidents, have pushed for removal of the Confederate battle flag because of its association with the era of slavery.

A "substantial consensus" of African-American and white South Carolinians wants the flag removed, Riley said in a telephone interview. "They are tired of our legislature being out of step and our legislature basically misrepresenting the people of South Carolina."

The flag's prominence on the state's most public building has divided South Carolinians for decades, pitting Confederate enthusiasts against those who view it as a symbol of racial intolerance and an affront to the state's roughly 1.2 million African-Americans.

The flag has flown over the State House since 1961. By law, only the state legislature can remove it. The drive to remove it gained new momentum over the past year when the NAACP launched a boycott of the state, which has cost South Carolina $7 million in convention business.

Several key legislators in the flag controversy have labeled the march a "publicity stunt" that will have little effect on the actions of state lawmakers. But Riley's understated, determined efforts to heal racial strife in his native state are well documented.

Early on, he recognized the importance of symbols.

After his election as mayor in 1975, Riley commissioned a portrait of Denmark Vesey, the slain leader of a 19th-century slave uprising, to hang in the city's municipal auditorium.

He prodded an all-white, largely Irish Hibernian society to integrate and boldly invited a black businessman to its annual dinner. Riley ensured that Charleston's bureaucracy would reflect the city's racial makeup. His nationally known police chief is a black Jew.

"He is a totally color-blind human being," said Regan.

Riley also understands the power of history, the state's Civil War legacy and its hold on proud and patriotic South Carolinians.

Riley was born and raised in Charleston, the city in which the first shots of the Civil War were fired. He graduated from the Citadel, South Carolina's state military school. And like many in this flag fight, Riley is a descendant of a Confederate soldier. His great-grandfather, Henry Oliver, fought in the Battle of Richmond.

"When the surrender occurred at Appomattox Court House, he walked home from Richmond as did his fellow soldiers, and he folded up his uniform and they furled the banner and he went about rebuilding his city," said Riley.

Many of the Confederate battle flag's defenders say it is part of the state's heritage and represents the sacrifice of thousands of South Carolinians. But Riley says the flag's advocates "are not in the service of my grandfather."

"They fought and they lost and they moved on," Riley said, referring to the Confederate soldiers. "They didn't fly the Confederate flag. They had too much pride for that. The Confederate flag did not fly atop the state Capitol until [1961]. For almost 100 years it wasn't there."

The flag was raised at the Capitol to commemorate the centennial of the War Between the States, which came amid the civil rights movement. It was never intended to remain atop the State House but it has continued to fly beneath the American and South Carolina flags.

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