Not long after he was elected in 1975, people started calling Mayor Riley “Little Black Joe.”
It was not meant as a compliment.
The LBJ moniker was a mocking criticism of his focus on sensitive issues of race, which has become one of the dominant themes of Riley’s entire political career.
He first ran for mayor with a goal of uniting the community in a time of growing racial animosity. In his first months in office, he hung a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in City Hall, set up police substations in some high-crime neighborhoods and started spending tax dollars to rehabilitate East Side housing.
Some people complained he did too much for black residents, while others said it was not enough. But Riley has not altered his course in 40 years.
His saddest moment as mayor, Riley says, came Wednesday night when a gunman killed nine black residents at Emanuel AME Church. But still he sees hope in the tragedy.
In a Saturday morning interview, the mayor says the community’s response to the killings shows that race relations in Charleston have come a long way. (Answers have been edited for length.)
Q: How have issues of race evolved and changed in Charleston since you took office?
A: There has been a wonderful and dramatic improvement in so many ways, and that is a great source of pride for me and the citizens of Charleston. I feel like that has been borne out in the city in the past few days.
The relationship between the police and citizens in our neighborhoods is good. People of color are involved in every aspect of city government. Obvious important early steps were recognizing Denmark Vesey with a portrait and later a statue, and a holiday for Dr. King.
Q: Your focus on inclusion and unity earned you the nickname Little Black Joe. Has that resentment gone away, or is it partially to blame for lingering racial tension?
A: That resentment abated because the times were changing. What we were doing was reaching out to the African-American community. First of all, it was the right thing to do. If you’re on the right side of history, people change and come around.
The Civil Rights Act was terribly controversial in 1964, but today there are few people out there who would say someone shouldn’t be able to sit at a lunch counter.
I think we still have plenty of work to do, but the progress is huge. You see that in front of Emanuel AME Church — black people and white people bringing flowers, black people and white people standing in an arena, holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Forty years ago that would have seemed impossible.
Q: What can a mayor, or the government, do to ease tensions after such a racially charged tragedy as the killings at Emanuel AME?
A: The government has to do everything possible to express sympathy to all those who were affected: family, immediate family, friends, the church family — in essence everyone in the city. You go into operational crisis mode. Every utterance has to be just right.
We came up with the idea for a fund because I knew people would feel better if they could do something for the victims that showed the love in the community. We’re going to take care of all the funerals, help the church and help the neighborhoods.
We have to make sure every family member has everything they need, and we have to work with the church. And we knew that getting this person in custody would be a very important part of reacting to the tragedy.
Q: Other than this tragedy, what do you consider the worst moment for race relations in Charleston, and how well did the city handle it?
A: The hospital strike, but it wasn’t violent and it was handled very well. There were no deaths.
But there has never been anything like this – nine citizens shot down in a Bible study class. It is the saddest moment for me as mayor. It’s heartbreaking for me and it’s heartbreaking for our citizens.
I think it’s important to note that Mr. Roof did not live in Charleston, did not grow up here. The fact is he didn’t learn to hate here. But he came here, trying and failing to spread that. What you see instead is a community that is united in love and compassion, and that is bi-racial.
Q: Roof had a Confederate tag on his car, and that has renewed calls to take down the battle flag on a monument at the Statehouse. How does the state’s Civil War history contribute to racial problems?
A: I think the value of taking the next step and putting the Confederate battle flag in a museum is that it allows you to recognize and honor those citizens of South Carolina who fought and died in the Civil War — almost all of whom were not slave owners. To say that history should be ignored, or that the Civil War should not be recognized, is wrong.
But you have the unfortunate, undeniable fact that some people — few in number, compared to the whole — used the Confederate battle flag as a symbol to oppose racial progress or to promote racial bigotry. It was appropriated, unfortunately, by hate groups.
If you put that symbol in a place of respect, then you isolate it.
My great-grandfather Henry Oliver fought in the Civil War. He walked home from Richmond at the end of the war and went about rebuilding the city. No one in my family ever talked about it — they were looking forward, not at the past. We’re part of America.
Putting the flag in a public place, at best, sends a mixed message. At worst, for people who look at the flag as a symbol to oppress people, it ratifies those feelings.
Q: There are critics who say the city’s black citizens have suffered because of problems such as gentrification, crime and drainage. Do you think the city has treated the black community well, and served their interests, particularly in recent years?
A: Our neighborhoods are all substantially safer than they were 40 years ago; you see that in crime statistics. Thousands of affordable homes have been restored or built by the city, and we have added parks throughout Charleston.
This weekend the city is receiving a Livability Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Part of the reason for that award is Camp Hope, our summer camps in the inner-city and low- to moderate-income areas of West Ashley and Johns Island. We also have the Friday Night Lights program, and a recidivism program. Charleston won against probably 100 other cities, for making this a livable city for everyone.
The African-American community has been enhanced in every regard. I see that in the hugs and smiles and affection I receive, and obviously I have seen it at the ballot box.
The most obvious measure is that as a result of this horrible, violent tragedy in Charleston, there was no riot, no bad actions. I think that really says something. We see that in other places because of feelings of non-inclusiveness or feelings of being ignored. That didn’t happen here.
Brian Hicks is currently writing a biography of Mayor Riley that will be published in the fall. Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org