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Commentary: Will Charleston find its way to racial 'hinge of history'?

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Photos of 1960 Kress sit-in (copy)

On April 1, 1960, Burke High School students conducted a sit-in at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter, a protest that thrust Charleston into the main currents of the civil rights movement.

The Charleston Forum has gained traction with its blunt insistence that the time is overdue for Charleston to confront and end the racial disparities that keep its black residents lagging far behind white ones.

The second annual forum on June 21 at the Charleston Music Hall drew an encouraging 650 people. They listened to speaker after speaker who detailed a litany of disparities: in education, housing, jobs, income and poverty, health, police-community relations, incarceration. “They’re terrible,” said an embarrassed but angrier Mayor John Tecklenburg.

The forum is part of the annual commemoration of the 2015 Mother Emanuel massacre, which stunned Charleston, at least for a historical moment, into thinking and talking about the racial color line that defines the city more than its reputational camellias, single houses and the steeple of St. Michael’s.

The color line was laid down in the enabling documents for Charles Town at its founding in 1670: “Every Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Power and Authority over his Negro Slaves.”

Could the Charleston Forum, which will hold its third event in 2019, become a “hinge of history” in Charleston’s race relations that will lead to transformational action for long-deferred equity and equality? I put the question to Brian Duffy, the white local attorney who is the chief founder and chairman of the forum.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Our culture has long avoided serious discussion of racial issues. The massacre at Mother Emanuel was singularly about race, and people are now willing to address race more directly. The City Council’s resolution on June 19 apologizing for the city’s role in slavery spoke to this new resolve. The forum is part of the continuing momentum.”

It has been decades since Charleston has experienced a racial hinge of history. The last was not quite 50 years ago – the 1969 strike by more than 400 black hospital workers, most of whom were segregated into menial jobs that paid $1.30 an hour. With widow Coretta Scott King in the front row, the workers marched in the city against a backdrop of bayonet-armed National Guardsmen.

An earlier hinge moment was in April 1960, when 24 students from all-black Burke High School sat down at the whites-only counter of the S.H. Kress five-and-dime store on lower King Street. It was one of the first nonviolent protests that broadened the struggle for racial equality from the courts to the places where Jim Crow ruled.

But neither the hospital strike nor the sit-down, as auspicious as they were, eliminated the disparities they targeted.

To end the 113-day-old strike, Charleston’s white establishment brokered a settlement that left the workers’ union unrecognized, included a weak provision for resolving employee grievances and yielded only a 30-cent-an-hour wage increase. The sit-down at the Kress five-and-dime did not desegregate the store’s lunch counter, nor did it eliminate Jim Crow elsewhere in the city. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to do that, and even then equal treatment was delayed by the white-controlled city government.

Charleston’s white power structure of the 1960s and 1970s has shuffled off into history along with that S.H. Kress five-and-dime. The existence of the Charleston Forum is evidence of real change. So are new attitudes among the leadership of the Charleston business community.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance have put together a regional structure called One Region that is committed to a strategy combining community and economic development.

Steve Warner, who is vice president of global competitiveness at the development alliance, says: “The issue of race and the issue of disparity and equity are so critical to our ability to move this community forward. The vision of One Region is to have a region that is globally competitive, where people and businesses thrive and everybody has an opportunity to live, learn and earn. That’s an inclusionary economic development strategy. That’s what the One Region strategy is about. That’s where we intersect with the Charleston Forum.”

But if Charleston is on the verge of a new racial hinge of history, will the door swing open wide enough?

It can happen. But it is not a foregone conclusion. There can be a re-enactment of the reversals, delays and appearances of progress that are the story of race in Charleston from Reconstruction through the civil rights movement to the present time. For the first real racial hinge of history in Charleston, the Charleston Forum and the business community’s One Region will have to push hard. Very hard.

That push won’t succeed without significant support from across the community. The forum needs to recruit more people, especially white people. It should take its mission to predominantly white religious congregations in the action-oriented Charleston Area Justice Ministry, which is represented on the forum’s organizing committee. The justice ministry’s No. 1 issue is the housing crisis, which is the driver for some of the most acute racial disparities.

The forum has to become a visible presence in every precinct of the city where white privilege, the successor to supremacy, prevails. The forum should revamp its too-sedate website into a lively and urgent platform that commands attention across the community, especially among poor minorities.

One Region, with its new project director, Sam Skardon, should take its new message directly to all businesses, and ask each of them to make a decision, big or small, that will push the hinge farther open on inclusionary development, on minority hiring, on an apprenticeship program for predominantly poor and black local high schoolers which, after four years, has funded only 174 graduates.

Together, the forum and One Region should take their mission against educational disparities directly to the trustees of the Charleston County School Board and insist it order an end to the system’s bureaucratic hammerlock that stymies innovative action by principals and their staffs to close persistent racial academic gaps. If there’s any push-back, forum and One Region leaders should make sure there will be alternative candidates in this November’s school board elections who will support more school-based autonomy.

If the Charleston Forum and One Region do all this hard pushing, the community will finally be ready to complete the hinge of history that was set in motion by the urgent words that echoed through the community and across its color line after the Mother Emanuel massacre: “Charleston united for equality — now!”

Tom Grubisich, a Charleston resident who is a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, is writing a book on the struggle to transform predominantly poor and black Memminger Elementary into an academically successful school. Contact him at

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