Two more local groups have severed ties with the Charleston Rifle Club after the club in October refused to admit its first black candidate.
That decision split the club membership with some circulating a petition in protest, others threatening to resign and a few saying they prefer to fight for change from within.
The March of Dimes has held an annual bowling tournament in February at the private Rifle Club for years, and the infant health charity has long been a favorite of the club, whose bylaws state that if ever the Charleston Rifle Club is dissolved, half its assets are to be donated to the March of Dimes state chapter.
The March of Dimes confirmed Saturday it would no longer be associated with the club. Bowling groups at Porter-Gaud and the College of Charleston also stopped using the club’s lanes in November after learning about the controversy.
“We stand against systemic racism which largely contributes to the negative birth outcomes in the communities we serve — as such, we have chosen not to accept their support moving forward,” said Jayna Zelman, head of public relations for the March of Dimes.
On Monday, the Kiwanis Club of Charleston confirmed it will stop holding its weekly meetings at the Rifle Club.
"We believe we are able to serve our community best when people of all ages and backgrounds work together to share their time and talents,” President Phil Wagoner said in a statement. “We pride ourselves on being a club that celebrates inclusion and diversity, both in our membership and in the community we serve. When it came to our attention that the Charleston Rifle Club did not feel the same way, we immediately severed ties and moved our weekly meeting location elsewhere.”
Wagoner said his club’s meeting location has changed over the course of a century but not its commitment to serving families and children.
“The Kiwanis Club of Charleston will never align itself with an organization that allows for discrimination. We welcome new members from all backgrounds and look forward to a time when every civic and social club in Charleston does as well."
In October, the club refused to admit its first black candidate, Melvin Brown, the only one of a group of 14 men who was blackballed at the meeting. The other 13 candidates, all white, were granted membership.
Brown is a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan and an emergency room doctor currently part of the Medical University of South Carolina's board of trustees.
Rifle Club President Dru Patterson initially denied any problems, even though the dispute over Brown had been brewing for a year. Patterson has not returned recent phone calls and emails from The Post and Courier.
In the Rifle Club's December newsletter, The Gunsite, Patterson addressed the unrest:
“Unfortunately 2018 ends on a troubling note with the club divided over issues unresolved,” he wrote. “Sadly some members use threats to membership and using outside the club sources to try to change the membership’s will. Perhaps instead of trying to undermine our club these members could try to work for a system that can work for the betterment of our club, finding methods to improve, not destroy or threaten should be all our goal for the new year.”
The newsletter also notes that, for now, no new membership applications are being accepted.
An online petition for members, which alleges that Brown’s “application for membership was denied based on the color of his skin” now has 116 signatures.
“As a private club, the Charleston Rifle Club can choose to exclude people based on their race, but the vast majority of the Charleston Rifle Club’s members find that to be an abhorrent and immoral choice and inconsistent with what we believe the club is,” the petition states.
The club has approximately 800 members, though many are not active. Of the members who use the club regularly or occasionally, opinions about the membership crisis are divided.
Brown said he has stepped back from the membership crisis at the club, which can only be addressed by its members. He has received an outpouring of support from friends, colleagues and strangers who became aware of his role in the quarrel. A neighborhood restaurant and Brown’s favorite hangout, Harold’s Cabin, briefly changed its name to Mel’s Cabin to express respect and sympathy.