COLUMBIA — J.W. Hayes leaned against South Carolina's monument to Confederate soldiers Monday and said he couldn't be prouder to be at that exact spot at the Statehouse, honoring the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Hayes was at the capitol nine years ago at the first King Day at the Dome Rally, when 50,000 people called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from atop the Statehouse dome. On Monday, the flag was flying at its new home, a 20-foot pole on the front lawn. But Hayes said he couldn't be more full of hope.
"I'm a 55-year-old black man. I've been in Columbia all my life. I've seen Jim Crow at its worst. Today's rally, it's just special. It's so special because tomorrow we will welcome a black president," said Hayes, stroking the gray hairs in his goatee. "I can't imagine how MLK must feel today. He has to be overjoyed. I know he is here in spirit."
Hayes was one of more than 1,000 people who showed up Monday to honor the slain civil rights leader at the South Carolina NAACP's annual King Day at the Dome rally. It was one of the smallest crowds in the nine years of the event, in no small part because many who would have come to the rally were in Washington for today's inauguration of Barack Obama.
Instead, Monday's rally centered on Obama's historic day and calls to end inequality in education, justice and earning power.
The events started with a prayer service at Zion Baptist Church in downtown Columbia, followed by a five-block march to the Statehouse, led by football players from Scott's Branch High School in Summerton, where lawsuits that eventually would bring down segregation started.
As marchers rounded the corner onto Main Street, a cold breeze kicked up, snapping the Confederate battle flag in front of the capitol into clear view two blocks away. Completely removing the flag from Statehouse grounds is one of the NAACP's main goals.
"I can't believe it still flies up there," said 16-year-old Kieana Parker of Columbia as she marched.
"But we're going to bring it down. My kids won't have to see it."
Obama's upcoming inauguration brought a hopeful, festive vibe to the rally.
But the speakers told the crowd the United States still has a long way to go to reach King's dream of equality for all.
"Race is still America's bad and terroristic side," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.