Customs, traditions still divide

Christina Elmore/Staff Sadara Shine (forefront), of the National Action Network's Youth Movement Think Tank, leads Ferguson protestors in a chant on the steps of the U.S. Customhouse, 200 East Bay St., Nov. 29, 2014.

Sadara Shine organized a number of local protests and marches last year following the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

She wanted to channel growing frustration in the black community into something positive that could raise awareness and promote change through peaceful means, she said. Some passersby were sympathetic toward the cause. Others sneered and insulted the demonstrators.

“We had people yelling, 'Go hang yourself,' ” Shine said. “I wasn't shocked by their comments at all. I had already prepared my people for that ahead of time. I told them, 'You came out here today so that your voice could be heard. You didn't come out here today to become a part of the negativity.' ”

In Charleston, race relations are not always at their best. Examples of respectful interaction and collaboration surely abound, both on the personal and institutional level, but de facto segregation remains an issue — in our restaurants and entertainment venues, in our schools and churches, and in the workplace. The problem is rooted in American history.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination at the ballot box and provided enforcement guidelines. These two historical acts each in their own way set the stage for a more integrated society, yet each proved insufficient in transforming their promises into reality.

Much has changed in the intervening years, progress largely made in fits and starts, first during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, then during the civil rights movement, especially from 1954 to 1968. That history is long and complicated, with many instances of generosity and open-mindedness, and plenty of episodes of hostility, prejudice and violence.

Significant disparities and divisions between blacks and whites remain, hindering progress and undermining good intentions, according to people interviewed by The Post and Courier for this series.

Whitney Powers was in third or fourth grade when her small Mississippi school was first integrated, receiving not only new black students but also black educators. She was to have a new teacher, Edda P. Jackson, a black woman who taught social studies and spelling.

“My father was terrified I was going to get this teacher,” Powers said. White parents had been told that Jackson could not control the kids. They were advising their children to disobey her commands.

Powers' father went to see the principal to request a change, but the principal told him to give Jackson a chance, “She's a good teacher.”

Powers, an architect and Charleston resident since 1988, said the decision her family made after that meeting with the principal had a profound influence on her. “She was an amazing teacher,” Powers said. Jackson provided the students a big view of the world, informed in no small measure by the civil rights movement which demanded that its participants place themselves in a broad political context. Black activists of that period were people reaching out to seize opportunity, not secure themselves in a protective fortress, and this world view seeped into her elementary school classroom, Powers said.

“So my personal history of integration is positive.”

Powers, who is active in civic affairs and recently launched the “If You Were Mayor” project, said differing points of view, shaped by social and cultural experiences, too often keep communities divided.

“I think what we have here is a preponderance of people who are concerned with appearances” — from the urban landscape to behavior — “and this contributes to racial divisions,” Powers said, adding that these divisions extend to class and place of origin.

When she first arrived in Charleston, the city “was more of a powder keg than Mississippi,” she said. “Here this was more of a sense of a wall — between black and white, rich and poor — that was pretty dense. It wasn't permeable, let's put it that way.”

Things have gotten better since then.

“Today, some at least acknowledge the divide and are reaching out,” Powers said, citing education initiatives such as Meeting Street Academy and Charleston Promise Neighborhood, as well as cultural institutions and social advocacy groups including Jazz Artists of Charleston and the Charleston Area Justice Ministry.

Brenda Nelson, director of community outreach for the Charleston County School District, said today's de facto racial segregation is partly a consequence of long-standing divisions and a social environment that doesn't encourage enough interaction.

“I think it starts with the culture of the city, of the community. It starts with past practices. It starts with exposure, opportunities,” she said. In some larger urban areas, “it's not uncommon to have relationships with people of other racial groups beyond the workplace. But in Charleston you don't see that kind of diversity.”

It wasn't always this divided, Nelson said. During the 1960s and 1970s, when school integration was new, diversity was often the rule, not the exception. Nelson attended the now-defunct Charleston High School, a forerunner to today's magnet schools. It drew students from across the city. About 40 percent of them were black. Consequently, white and black students worked together and often became friends.

“We had relationships with other students,” and black students interacted with white teachers, Nelson said. “This prepared us for later in life, (gave us) a comfort level with people of different backgrounds.”

When Nelson later went to New York for a social work internship, she lived with a Jewish family in Westchester County.

Millicent Brown, a history professor at Claflin University who recently retired and returned to Charleston, was among the first few black students to integrate the Charleston County public schools in 1963, transferring from Burke High School to Rivers High School at her father's prodding. Arthur Brown was then president of the local NAACP chapter.

Millicent Brown said a long-standing paternalism in South Carolina continues to inform race relations today.

“When white people get with black folks, they think it's their duty to save them, or influence them,” she said. “We don't yet know how to grapple with the inability to see people as whole, viable, capable people.”

There also needs to be an honest reconciliation with the past.

“We have never reckoned with the historic reality of how we came to be as a city, state and nation,” Brown said. “(Yet) without the tragedy of oppression, ... none of this would exist.” What's needed is not sentimentality and nostalgia, but hard truths and honest conversation. “There must be an attempt to make people understand how involuntary so many of their covert reactions against people of color really are,” she said.

Economic inequality can be traced back to the centuries of racist division and oppression. Unless society recognizes the causes of poverty among blacks, and works to ameliorate poverty's effects, racial reconciliation will remain elusive, Brown said.

“(Blacks) can't fix this dilemma; we need the whole society.”

Ted Rosengarten, a McClellanville resident, historian and author of the 1974 National Book Award winner, “All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw,” said the way to improve race relations is to address social and economic inequality and discrimination.

“We are a segregated society,” he said. “We broke down the laws that compelled people to live segregated lives, but the customs and traditions remain, and the underlying conditions remain. For me the big issue is education. We haven't done a thing.”

But if institutions are reformed and infrastructure augmented — if jobs are created, schools improved, jails less populated with nonviolent offenders and neighborhoods better served — race relations will get better.

“The problem is systemic,” Rosengarten said. “We have to decide where we as society are going to intervene, and who are the people who will agitate for intervention, and what will the right intervention be.”

It is difficult to calculate what is lost when whole segments of society are kept down, Rosengarten said.

“We don't unlock the potential of people of color, and then who knows what we lose?”

The country has come a long way, Rosengarten said. Society is more integrated, and opportunities are available to blacks today that could hardly be imagined before the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet many people of color continue to struggle.

“People who see this as a problem have to do a couple of things: Get over the idea that nothing can be done, and not to treat it as if it were somebody else's problem,” he said.

To overcome the lingering effects of segregation, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said the city must first address the issue of economic disparity among races.

“That is our challenge going forward, to bring people of color and people of all races who are considered to be in the lower socioeconomic category up to economic parity with the majority of those who are moving to the peninsula,” the Charleston democrat said.

Rising house prices have contributed to a stunning loss of Charleston's black residents, Kimpson said, citing a recent Post and Courier report on gentrification.

The racial and economic gap extends to Charleston's bars, restaurants, hotels and other social venues that many can't afford, he said.

As a city attracting investment from private and public sources, Charleston would benefit from a “realignment of priorities” that leads to more inclusiveness, Kimpson said.

He recalled having dinner with his family at a King Street restaurant this month. When he looked around, he saw no other minorities. “Although we can sit at the counter,” he said, “many of us can't afford to eat at the counter.”

Kimpson has grown accustomed to being one of only a few blacks in the room, “but I don't think that it's good for the city. It's not truly a reflection of the rich culture that we have and it lends itself to continued polarization. At meal time, that's when people of all colors can enjoy conversation and get to know the best of one another.”

Sadara Shine, 23, graduated from Coastal Carolina University last year before returning to her native Charleston. She serves through the National Action Network's Youth Movement Think Tank, a civil rights organization headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“I definitely think there is what I would call a modern-day segregation or an unspoken segregation in Charleston,” Shine said. “You don't really see much of a mixed atmosphere at any location.”

That's especially apparent on the Charleston peninsula.

Whether it's because of the type of music played, the way patrons are dressed or the overall atmosphere of Charleston's bars and clubs, Shine said she often feels as though the city's nightlife is primarily geared toward whites.

“Because of the way our neighborhoods and our schools are set up, people have a tendency to stick to their own groups. There isn't a strong push saying, 'Let's intermingle,'” Shine said. “Honestly, I don't feel like you can force people to hang out with people they don't know. But if I'm spending money here, I shouldn't have to feel like people are going to stare at me because I'm dressed in different apparel or because I like a different genre of music than they do. I think it starts with education and letting people know it's OK to step out of their comfort zone.”