Several members of the private, all-white Charleston Rifle Club say the nonprofit social group is a discriminatory “race-based organization” after it refused to admit its first black candidate for membership.
Melvin Brown, a medical doctor and member of the Medical University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, was put forth as a candidate late last year, prompting months of disagreement and conflict that culminated on Oct. 1, when Brown was rejected by the club’s blackball system — which requires only six of its 800 members to scuttle a vote.
Despite meeting the club’s stated criteria for membership and receiving the required sponsorship, his bid for membership was rejected, even as 13 white candidates were admitted at the same meeting.
Brown said the year-long controversy over his application for membership has been dispiriting.
“This is new for me,” he said. “My dad fought this fight.”
The result of the vote surprised several members who consider themselves part of the club’s “new guard” and who assumed Brown’s credentials would easily convince the club to embrace him. These members said they had no reason to think the club was racist until now because never before had its membership practices been challenged in this way.
Now, a word-of-mouth petition is circulating among members that could generate a consensus for change. More than 60 have signed it as of Monday.
“(A) minority, against the will of the majority, has chosen to make the club a race-based organization,” the petition states, in reference to the rejection of Brown. “This threatens the reputation of the club and the reputation of its members. It also jeopardizes the club's affiliations with countless outside organizations with which the club has for years endeavored to assist in social and charitable efforts. We, the undersigned, hereby demand that the Club leadership immediately and publicly condemn this practice, and actively seek to right this wrong.”
Two Charleston schools — Porter-Gaud School and College of Charleston — that have used club property have severed ties because of the controversy.
Jimmy Bailey Jr. said the dispute could drive him to quit the club — unless it immediately becomes more inclusive.
Bailey has enjoyed bowling on Monday nights at the Rifle Club's Wagener Terrace facility, along with many others — including actor Bill Murray, an advocate of integration at the club — who appreciate the camaraderie, inexpensive beer, scenic location on the Ashley River and privacy. The club sits on 14 acres of valuable land with deep-water access and plenty of room for all kinds of indoor and outdoor events. But an acrimonious member meeting on Nov. 5 distressed Bailey and other reformers.
“I attended the meeting,” he said. “The next morning, I sent an email out (saying) what went down was depressing and disgusting, and questioning whether or not I could stick around.”
Bailey said he’s saddened that an appeal for what should have been an uncontroversial change in the demographics of the club became such a heavy wedge thrust between factions.
“I’m mad for moral reasons, but I’m also mad for selfish reasons, that my fun Monday night activity is going to be no longer,” he said. “If I leave, that’s one less person there to be a part of change. Some of the old guard would be just thrilled for us to leave.”
Another member, Tommy Dew, said he loves the club and wants it to thrive.
“We see ourselves as defenders of the club,” he said of the reform-minded faction of the club, calling the rejection of Brown and ensuing conflict “a massive self-inflicted wound.”
“I believe everyone (on both sides) loves the club,” he said. “But the problem is 14 men were nominated for membership, 13 got in and one didn’t. ... That’s a problem. If you can’t see that, that’s a problem.”
Dru Patterson, president of the Charleston Rifle Club, denied that controversy has taken hold among the members, denied the November meeting became heated and denied that recent voting and blackballing of candidates had caused concern in the community.
“There was no fight Monday night,” he said in a brief telephone interview later that week, asking who had been talking with a reporter from The Post and Courier. “There’s no huge controversy at this club. The club is doing fine. It's been doing fine for 150 years.”
Several outside groups have used the club for bowling practice, special events or to hold meetings, including the Kiwanis Club, March of Dimes, Charleston Exchange Club, College of Charleston bowling league and Porter-Gaud bowling team.
Both schools have distanced themselves from the Rifle Club because of the controversy.
“When the College of Charleston became aware of the Charleston Rifle Club’s practices around membership, the College’s administration moved its faculty/staff bowling league to another location that reflects the institution’s values of diversity and inclusion,” Mike Robertson, senior director of media relations at the College of Charleston, said in a statement.
Porter-Gaud also released a statement, saying its team now uses Ashley Lanes on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard.
"We fully support our coaching staff’s decision to have Porter-Gaud’s bowling team practice at a facility that shares our core values of diversity and inclusion," said Head of School D. DuBose Egleston Jr.
It is not illegal for the Charleston Rifle Club to exclude black members.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “any place of public accommodation” from discriminating on the basis of race, but it exempts private clubs. Nevertheless, some private clubs have modified their membership requirements in recent years, admitting blacks, women, Jews, members of the LGBTQ community and the non-religious.
Augusta National Golf Club welcomed its first two women — Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina’s Darla Moore — in 2012. The Boy Scouts of America banned LGBTQ youth until this decade, but now admits them.
In Charleston, a few private clubs still do not admit women as independent members. And at least two have no black members.
Today, a number of schools, fraternities, sororities, alumni groups and private organizations consist of members who are predominantly or exclusively black or white. They are organized according to the principal of free association and are generally not in any legal danger.
Historians and attorneys point out, however, that all-black groups exist mostly as a consequence of discrimination, whereas all-white groups often exist because they discriminate.
Armand Derfner, a Charleston-based civil rights lawyer, said a discriminatory private club can run into legal issues under certain limited circumstances. If it rents its property to outside groups, it cannot discriminate. And no state money can be spent at the club. This would violate a South Carolina civil rights statute, Derfner said.
This means a state court judge, or state university football coach or professor, or any other person who derives all or part of his salary from the state, cannot use state money to buy a beer at the bar of a discriminatory private club or rent the facility or even get reimbursed for gas money to get to or from the club.
“No state funds of any kind may be spent with regard to any organization that discriminates,” Derfner said. “This comes up mostly where all-male booster clubs can’t get coaches (to come speak to them). Every state employee is running a risk if he’s a member. If you’re at a meeting on state time, that’s a violation. It’s an unusual and very stringent statute.”
Melvin Brown is an emergency room physician with an engineering degree who grew up in Charleston, graduated from Porter-Gaud and spent 20 years in the Navy.
His late father, William Melvin Brown, was an educator and entrepreneur who became a successful businessman in Charleston, founding American Development Corp., a defense manufacturing firm that eventually employed 300 and grossed $25 million a year.
The elder Brown served on several boards — at Clemson University, Talladega College, the State Ports Authority, the Charleston Aviation Authority, Porter-Gaud and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. He also was chairman of the city of Charleston Election Commission.
His son had agreed to integrate the Rifle Club because for three years his friends asked him for help. He also liked the club's casual atmosphere.
“I went bowling there one night,” he said. “I had fun.”
After he submitted his application, the club placed a moratorium on new members. A few members quit.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my, what have I done? Well, I can’t back out now.’”
Brown warned his still-optimistic friends that this might not work out the way they wanted.
When Brown was blackballed, “I didn’t walk out of there pissed, I walked out of there disappointed,” he said.
Now, he said, he’s standing back, letting things cool down, encouraging his friends to keep up the fight.
“I would like to see the club fix itself.”
'No one was denied'
The Charleston Rifle Club was started in 1855 as the German Rifle Club, a place where local German immigrants could gather and organize in ways that would facilitate assimilation into local society, according to historian Jeff Strickland, a professor at Montclair State University. He wrote the 2015 book “Unequal Freedoms,” which recounts the origins and early activities of this and similar clubs.
The Charleston area had perhaps 10 rifle clubs at the time. The Germans were a little different. Some of them were not too keen about military confrontation; they preferred throwing parties, including the Schuetzenfest, or annual spring Mardi Gras attended by many city residents.
Most Germans were merchants interested more in serving their customers than battling Union forces or shooting slaves. Some even interacted with black people, Strickland said.
But as the Civil War loomed, the Germans were forced to take sides. Before long, the German Rifle Club was part of a constellation of active militias that would help turn back Reconstruction and enforce Jim Crow.
Today, membership in the club is limited to male U.S. citizens at least 21 years old and "of good moral character."
The club's bylaws state: "The Purpose of the Charleston Rifle Club is to promote the welfare of its members, various charitable organizations and to maintain and strengthen American patriotism and good fellowship."
James Ledlie, an attorney who sponsored Brown for membership, said he decided to test the character of a club that prioritizes patriotism.
"CRC makes a big deal of Fourth of July and Veterans Day. As a veteran myself, it is one of the things I enjoyed about CRC. But when I nominated a friend of mine who is a living, breathing exemplar of selfless military service, who happens to be black, and he was denied membership despite his stellar character and personality, I knew for sure what was going on. That was the reckoning. That was the proof."
Dew and others had made it clear to their colleagues that rejecting Brown would be perceived as discriminatory and reflect badly on the club.
“As long as anybody I know can remember, until a year ago, no one who stood for a vote was denied membership,” Ledlie said, echoing Dew who also could not recall any rejections.