Through the prison bars in a Mississippi jail in 1967, Robert Ford could see a Confederate battle flag.
White men hissed, "We got you tonight," at the young black crusader for Martin Luther King Jr., who would eventually be arrested 73 times trying to overcome.
Fast-forward to the year 2004 and that man would become a Democratic South Carolina state senator up for re-election. The opposition would paint him as an Uncle Tom in a nasty race he would barely survive. Part of the ammunition against Ford came when The Post and Courier ran a photo of him leaning against a Confederate battle flag.
In that photo, Ford stood between two white politicians as a parade marched down East Bay Street to bury the dead Confederate sailors found when the ill-fated Civil War submarine, the H.L. Hunley, emerged from its watery grave.
The battle flag has played a role throughout Ford's political career and it sits as the keystone to his political success by securing his relationship with powerful Republican Sen. Glenn McConnell.
Together, they are the Senate's odd couple.
On his first day as a senator in January 1993, Ford blew into the chamber like a hurricane. His new colleagues thought Ford cared about just one thing: tearing the Confederate battle flag off the pole on the Statehouse dome. Many viewed him as a militant.
At that same time, McConnell, an emerging Senate leader, had been in office for 13 years. Like many other senators, McConnell thought he would clash with Ford, especially over the flag. McConnell, a Civil War history buff, loved participating in battle re-enactments. That passion filled a big part of McConnell's private life. He traced his family history to learn about the role three of his ancestors played in the nation's deadliest war, including one who took a bullet at Gettysburg.
McConnell would later become the leader of the Senate, it's president pro tempore, and one of its youngest to serve as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.
To this day, the Senate serves as McConnell's political focus. The Legislature flows in his blood: Two in his family served before him in the Statehouse. Family means much to the senator who lives with his brother and remains close to the rest of his siblings. Religion also lies at his core and often dictates his thoughts and actions.
Like Ford, he is a lifelong bachelor, although Ford likes to characterize himself as a "player."
Ford and McConnell met for the first time on that January day when Ford first walked onto the Senate floor.
Ford, a native of New Orleans, booms into a room, boisterous and vibrant like the Big Easy.
McConnell, a white Reagan Republican with Goldwater underpinnings, carries himself like a Presbyterian preacher, studious and straitlaced. Few would recognize him as someone who spends sunny days on Lake Moultrie speeding around on a souped-up personal watercraft with a do-rag tied on his head.
Both recall greeting each other with preconceived ideas flavored by their viewpoints on the Confederate battle flag.
Perhaps things would have played out differently if not for several trips the two made together in 1993 regarding the flag, including a public hearing in the Upstate and a debate the two headlined at a Republican men's club in Moncks Corner.
McConnell also invited Ford on Halloween night that year to go to Magnolia Cemetery for a ghost walk accompanied by what Ford remembers as "25,000 screaming Confederates." Ford was one of two blacks on the scene. The other was participating in the re-enactment as a slave.
Ford, although opinionated, seemed to have a genuine openness about him and an eagerness to learn that drew McConnell in.
On one of the trips, McConnell made note cards to prepare for his address. He relied on a stack of books by his side that detailed the Civil War and the history of the Confederate flag: To him it is a symbol of the sacrifice of soldiers fighting for their homeland. Ford didn't bring any books and had no notes. He drew on his personal history growing up amid racial discrimination and Confederate battle flag-waving Ku Klux Klansmen.
They had hundreds of miles on the drives to talk.
Ford was stunned when McConnell told him that blacks also owned slaves. McConnell, in turn, learned about the legacy of Marcus Garvey and the history behind the Black Liberation Flag, which prompted Garvey to famously proclaim: "Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride."
For McConnell, the Confederate battle flag didn't have strong personal significance until the early 1980s. Up in Virginia, a developer came across human remains while grading land for a parking lot. The remains belonged to a Civil War soldier from South Carolina. Then-Rep. John Bradley arranged for the long-dead soldier to lie in state in Columbia. McConnell recalls the way people responded to Bradley's efforts with what McConnell thought was an absurdity of political correctness. Some in power seemed afraid for political purposes to accept the soldier back, at least not under the Capitol dome and with a state funeral.
McConnell thought the soldier deserved the honor because he died for his state fighting under the Confederate battle flag.
Ford had not thought of the flag from McConnell's perspective before the night when he walked into that Berkeley County gym and saw a crowd of white men looking back at him.
To begin the conversation, Ford recounted a trip to South Carolina in the 1960s, shortly after the battle flag was raised over the Statehouse for the first time since the end of the Civil War. Ford, then a 17-year-old student staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with three other young staffers stopped to picket the flag for about two hours on their way to Beaufort's Penn Center, an institution that marks the site of one of the country's first schools for freed slaves.
A white newsman for the Columbia Record asked Ford why he was making a fuss because the flag didn't bother the local "Negroes."
Ford grew up conscious of the need to fight segregation under the direction of parents who were active black leaders and from King's own guidance. He was expelled in 1969 before he could graduate from Grambling State University in Louisiana for leading civil rights demonstrations. That wasn't an uncommon experience even at the historically black institution, Ford recalled; after all, the school still relied on money from white politicians.
When the FBI sought him as a draft-evader, he changed the spelling of his last name from Iford to Ford to avoid identity and arrest. The feds caught up to him in 1973 outside a Methodist church in Charleston and transported him to New Orleans for a trial that he won based on conscientious objection.
With that background in mind, Ford walked into the Berkeley gym with McConnell. Ford expected a showdown. What he found instead was a group that wanted desperately for him to understand why they felt the way they did about the Confederate battle flag.
The men of the Republican's Club testified, some with tears, about the bearing the battle flag had on their lives. Ford listened to the stories of their ancestors, their love for South Carolina and for a heritage they didn't want defined by slavery or the Ku Klux Klan.
Ford heard them but remained unconvinced the flag should stay put. Still, that night marked the beginning of a personal evolution about the flag and a realization it would continue to divide the state unless the two sides found a way to bend.
Building a relationship
One day earlier in Ford's first session, McConnell went to Ford's office.
Since his days as a young lawyer, McConnell nurtured a scholar's curiosity for the Senate and offered to help Ford learn the rules of the institution.
No one else, black or white, Republican or Democrat, had offered to help Ford like that.
Knowing the rules means an understanding of how to out-maneuver other senators in a game of chess on the chamber floor, and those skills carried McConnell far.
Sen. Luke Rankin, a Myrtle Beach Republican, once said, "Like Reagan was the great communicator, McConnell is the great facilitator."
McConnell told Ford that if he wanted better luck turning his ideas into law, he should offer them as amendments on bills rather than as new bills. Despite that advice, Ford continues to file a stack of bills every session. Not many make it into the law, at least not directly. He puts the bills on record to please his constituents and then pursues other avenues to get them in the law books.
In the last two years, Ford introduced 66 bills and resolutions. Two passed. His work and influence provide a lasting impact on the state through bill amendments, compromises and language added during committee meetings.
He consistently pushes to seat more black judges and fights against crooked mortgage lending practices that charge blacks more than whites. He has enjoyed some success on both fronts, in part because of McConnell's help.
The men are as far apart as could be when it comes to philosophy on government, and in personalities and approaches.
The light at McConnell's desk in the Gressette Building stays on long into the night while he drafts complex bills. He's masterminded approaches to overhaul the workers' compensation system, stop companies from hiring illegal workers and establish starting points for South Carolina to meet future energy demands.
McConnell authored 106 bills and resolutions in the last session: 46 became law.
Both senators occasionally attract the national news spotlight.
Ford drew criticism across the country when he said in 2007 that soon-to-be President-elect Barack Obama would drag down Democrats if he made it to the top of the ticket. He later apologized, but still thinks Hillary Clinton would make a better president.
McConnell drew attention that same year for suggesting states band together for the country's second constitutional convention to force the federal government to address illegal immigration.
Relationship bears fruit
One of the first bills Ford filed in his first year in office was to bring down the Confederate battle flag. It didn't go anywhere.
As he began to apply lessons he learned along the way, Ford changed his approach to a less-abrupt attack on the flag. He filed one bill that called for the Black Liberation Flag, a symbol of the civil rights movement, to be posted beside the Confederate battle flag on the dome.
Ford's efforts to bring the flag down rested on groundwork already laid by some such as Sen. Kay Patterson, who served in the Legislature from 1975 until retirement last year. Patterson, who is black, began calling for the flag to come down in 1974 and received death threats that he called " 'Die nigger' mail."
Over the next two decades, the political and social winds changed, increasing pressure to remove the flag. Two governors, the Black Legislative Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined the fight, and the national spotlight shone down on what became the last Statehouse in the country to fly the Confederate battle flag.
Meanwhile, McConnell grew more conscious of the view of blacks. He and Ford teamed up to offer several bills that would celebrate the histories of blacks and the Confederacy. One idea was to establish state holidays for King and one for Confederate Memorial Day. Another protected existing Civil War and civil rights monuments.
McConnell and Ford defined their cause and their alliance as "the politics of the new millennium."
They saw little success with their early bills but the Legislature continued to work toward compromise.
The NAACP urged businesses, sports teams and tourists to boycott the state. The sanctions began on Jan. 1, 2000, and are to last until the Confederate battle flag is removed from the Statehouse grounds.
McConnell remained an outspoken supporter of the flag and demanded that it be treated with respect as a symbol of the sacrifice and dignity of the 22,000 South Carolinians who died in the Civil War. He thought flag supporters were the only ones who had been asked to give up any ground.
McConnell credits Ford with pointing the way toward a compromise solution.
Ford describes his action as a matter of keeping an open mind and practicality. He thinks that many white Southerners will always love the Confederacy and that any effort to fight them on those beliefs will only further divide the races. He characterizes his personal metamorphosis as an act of Christianity.
"I believe that continuing the fight would only serve to destroy the relationships that have been developed between African-Americans and whites," Ford wrote in a newspaper commentary in July 1999 to build public support for the compromise. "A positive relationship is our only hope for solving our economic, educational, housing and social problems and concerns that exist in the African-American community."
Victory in the compromise came in the spring of 2000 and was drafted from a bill Ford filed.
The compromise removed the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol dome and inside the House and Senate chambers. It also called for building an African-American monument on the Statehouse grounds. But in a key aspect of the compromise that still rankles civil rights groups and others, the battle flag was moved to fly above a monument for the Confederate soldier in front of the Statehouse, arguably in a more prominent position.
Ford's role compromised his relations with the NAACP, with whom he fought for decades against segregation. The NAACP continues to oppose the compromise and re-emphasized its boycott and economic sanctions against the state last year.
McConnell credits Ford as the one who broke the ice over the deeply divisive issue. Likewise, Ford acknowledges McConnell for the part he played as chairman of the commission that created the African-American History Monument on Statehouse grounds.
The odd couple today
McConnell, 61, sits in his makeshift office in the back of the Confederate memorabilia outlet he operates in North Charleston with his brother Sam. The 7,700-square-foot gallery sells antique flags, chess sets with Confederate and Union soldier figurines and prints depicting the realities of battle.
McConnell's office is as cluttered as the rest of the store: his dog Mini, a black-and-white Boston Terrier with a long list of ailments, curls up on an old blanket crumpled on the floor; stacks of papers, books and binders sit on the tabletops and a mess of computers, wires and old electronics fill the rest of the space.
Here, McConnell, by most measures the most powerful man in South Carolina politics, discussed his unexpected alliance and friendship with Ford.
"I'd have to call him a real good friend, though we have views that can be miles apart," McConnell said.
Still, they have teamed up on matters other than the Confederate battle flag, notably on crime in Charleston County. Ford called in the summer of 2006 for the National Guard to walk the streets to control erupting levels of violence. McConnell, in response, formed a Senate task force to use its resources to study far-reaching solutions.
The goals, made harder to reach now because of the economic meltdown, include putting more judges on the bench, giving judges more discretion when it comes to keeping repeat offenders off the streets and taking DNA samples for certain crimes at the time of arrest.
A big part of Ford's success hinges on McConnell's appointment of him to influential positions, including a now senior seat on the Judiciary Committee and a role in screening new judges.
In turn, Ford, 60, helps McConnell build consensus with Democrats so that important bills can make it to the floor. Democratic colleagues turn to Ford to get bottom-line information on McConnell and the Republican's viewpoint. And McConnell often relies on Ford to find out just how far Democrats will go for a compromise.
Together, they broker and build coalitions.
Ford said only one subject keeps him and McConnell at persistent odds: McConnell's love for speed on his red Honda personal watercraft. "Totally unwise," Ford said, shaking his head.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and a House member since 1992, said mutual respect makes their relationship work.
Some pigeonhole McConnell because of his passion for the Confederacy, but Ford looked beyond the surface to discover an interesting and complex individual, Cobb-Hunter said. Many who know McConnell regard him as someone who is funny and charming, with an almost photographic memory.
In return for their public friendship and cooperation, Ford's endured nasty comments such as Uncle Tom directed at him when people don't understand their relationship, she said.
In the end, they are the same because they are both very shrewd; they have an agenda and they know how to accomplish it.
"What their relationship shows me is there really is a possibility of people who on the surface appear so different to really genuinely become friends," she said. "It really gives me hope."
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