McConnell defends photograph

Sen. Glenn McConnell posed with Gullah Geechee re-enactors Frank and Sharon Murray during a Charleston event hosted by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women.

COLUMBIA -- Glenn McConnell says he doesn't want to live his life worrying about being politically correct.

The man widely considered to be the state's most powerful politician on Wednesday characterized as nonsense a nationwide Internet firestorm over a recent photo of him smiling in a uniform, the one he wore in the movie "The Hunley" to portray Confederate Gen. Thomas Jordan. McConnell stands between a black man and woman who appear to be dressed as slaves.

McConnell, a white Charleston Republican and president pro tem of the Senate, said the snapshot actually shows just how far the state has come in race relations, despite what the blogosphere might have to say., a gossip and entertainment website, for instance, posted a link to the photo under the headline, "Why Is This South Carolina Senate President Playing Confederate Dress-up With Slaves?"

McConnell and a handful of white Civil War-era re- enactors were invited along with Gullah storytellers Frank and Sharon Murray, who portrayed traditional Lowcountry blacks from the 1860s, to participate in "A Southern Experience," an event hosted Friday in Charleston by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women.

The event drew 300 female political activists from across the country, including places as far away as Alaska, California and Texas.

The picture spread online after South Carolina blogger Will Folks posted a link on Tuesday night. Folks, a former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, claimed in May that he had a sexual relationship with Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in 2007. He offered no proof and she denied any affair.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said when she looks at the picture she sees "the master standing in the middle with the two slaves standing at his side."

And what that says to her is, "This is where you came from and this is where you are. That's the last thing we need to be reminded of."

"I think it's disgraceful," said Scott, who is black. "It's like he has this playground where he can play dress-up and think nothing of how offensive it is for folks whose ancestors actually lived in the era."

McConnell said the event Friday night was conducted in a respectful, historical context. Re-enactments include blacks and whites and draw people from all across the country who want to learn more about history, he said.

"Tell me what is offensive about having the differing parts of the culture there? What are we going to try and do in America, sanitize history?" McConnell said from his office in the Statehouse.

His office is decorated with memorabilia from his re- enactments of the Civil War, along with a law library and mementos, such as a Ronald Reagan figurine and a Boeing Co. flag.

"These folks didn't ask me to take this picture or participate in this skit because they were trying to make some political statement. This picture says, if anything, how we cross the culture lines."

Sharon Murray said she and her husband were neither portraying freedmen nor slaves. They were invited to teach the women about the Gullah culture, she said. Their garments were replicas of clothing worn by skilled craftsmen of the Civil War era.

The Murrays were paid for their time, and Sharon Murray said the night also offered the couple a chance to network with political activists who might, in turn, become educated on the Gullah culture and help promote efforts to preserve the history.

The Murrays are well known in the Charleston community for their work.

"My husband and I are preservationists," Murray said.

McConnell has been a re- enactor for 20 years. He said re-enactors like himself enjoy the pastime as a hobby. He said it also provides a chance to bring history alive and to teach the public about the past. He wasn't paid for his participation.

"What the ladies had put together was a smorgasbord of Southern culture," McConnell said. "It was reflected in the dress, the historical accuracy of the performances and even down to the food. It was wonderful, entertaining and educational night for those visitors. It showed the approach we have in this state of a shared history.

"If somebody is trying to be politically correct and use a tunnel vision on it and hook in the slavery issue, they're on a slippery slope toward narrow-mindedness and they should extend the charity of understanding. Receive it in the spirit that it is presented."

Mary Ann Taylor, president of Charleston County Republican Women's Club and co-chairwoman of the event, said it showcased the state's pristine land, offered authentic food such as fried chicken and banana pudding, featured cadets from The Citadel, a sweetgrass basket weaver and provided a lesson on shag dancing. Taylor is white.

Taylor said the original blog post of the McConnell photo was "a big, old nasty slam."

"We wanted everyone to get a taste of the Lowcountry experience -- the beauty, the history and the culture," Taylor said. "There were no racial overtures."

Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who is black, stood up for McConnell. Ford said McConnell has done more to preserve African-American history than most others in modern times.

Ford said McConnell was instrumental in establishing a state holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and in creating the African-American monument on Statehouse grounds.