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Flag-Waving in the Palmetto State

By Barry Martin

When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began threatening an economic boycott of South Carolina because of the Confederate Battle Flag flying over the Statehouse in Columbia, tourism officials began to worry.

    After all, the biggest industry in the Palmetto State is tourism. And even though the NAACP hasn't actually voted for the boycott, and in any case didn't intend for it to begin in January, three dozen organizations have already pulled their conventions and meetings from the state.

    But while tourism boosters are frantic, the boycott has begun to pick up support from an unexpected quarter: white supporters of the flag who scarcely conceal their glee at the prospect of fewer African-Americans visiting South Carolina.

    History minded Confederate flag boosters continue to fight those who characterize the banner as a symbol of racism and slavery. But some of the people on their team are turning out to be their own worst enemies, undermining the claim that the flag flies in South Carolina out of reverence for the state's Southern heritage.

    The fight to focus on heritage, not hate, hit a low point at an Oct. 9 rally at the Statehouse, under the shadow of the only Confederate flag flying over a state Capitol. There, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Populist Party presidential candidate David Duke promised to bring his family to South Carolina for a vacation in support of the flag if the NAACP moves ahead with its threat.

    "And I am telling the NAACP that if they do not give up this fight, I am going to move to South Carolina because I love the people here," Duke thundered to scattered and sometimes tentative and uncomfortable applause.

    Duke's rhetoric was tame, though, compared to that of some other participants in the 300-strong rally. "They are trying to destroy our heritage and culture," said A.J. Barker, North Carolina state chairman of the Council of Conservative Citizens, referring to black opponents of the battle flag. "They are the enemies of God and the enemies of our race, supported by people with baggy pants and earrings in the eyes and noses and other places like in the heart of Africa."

    That sentiment was echoed by Robert Clarkson of Sumter, S.C., who claimed the NAACP boycott has "cut down on shoplifting."

    The Council of Conservative Citizens — called a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center — plans another rally for November, but could find fewer people willing to stand and cheer for "Dixie." Many of the participants at the October rally, which had been expected to draw more than 1,000 spectators, backed away and quietly left as Duke began to speak.

    Though other CCC members had opposed Duke's appearance, he was nonetheless brought in by a Charleston board member. "David has some good ideas, but he is identified with the Klan," said CCC Chairwoman Frances Bell. "That's not the message we hoped to send."

    The NAACP voted later in October to proceed with the tourism boycott. Already, the NAACP says, 42 state and national organizations have canceled meetings or conventions in South Carolina.

    South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat who said while campaigning in 1998 that he wouldn't try to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse but would instead agree to a "compromise" if passed by the Legislature, is conducting a series of private meetings with lawmakers, business leaders and university officials to discuss the flag and the tourism boycott.
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