Combahee River: A Great Divide

Mary Gadsden owns Miss Mary's Home Cooked Seafood on U.S. Highway 21, in Joe Wilson's district. Below: Jeff Grigg sits in his Island Marine Service office in Green Pond, in Jim Clyburn's district.

GREEN POND -- The Combahee River winds slowly through the Lowcountry's ACE Basin and is no stranger to race-based conflict.

In the Civil War, the Union Army sailed past the rice fields here, freeing hundreds of slaves from their plantations and enlisting many in the fight against the Confederacy.

The army was helped by Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave from Maryland who became an iconic figure in the Underground Railroad, a vast, secretive network that helped slaves flee to freedom in the North.

Today, Tubman's name graces the new U.S. Highway 17 bridge spanning the river, where a conflict still lingers, albeit in a new form.

This river now separates South Carolina's Second Congressional District, now represented by Republican Joe Wilson, from its Sixth Congressional District, a seat held by U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat.

Both have played lead roles in the political firestorm that began when Wilson blurted out "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's health care address to Congress and failed to end even after Clyburn successfully urged Congress to vote its disapproval of what Wilson did.

Mary Gadsden, who is black, crosses the river each day from her Green Pond home to the Beaufort County fish stand where she works.

She said Wilson's remark came at the wrong time and wrong place, but she said she isn't sure whether his motivation was racist, as former President Jimmy Carter suggested, or motivated by his desire to keep the status quo for health insurance companies.

The whole incident cast the state in a negative light, she said, noting a segment that MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow did on the state.

"She was comparing the state of South Carolina to other states in the U.S, and every one of those things that was negative," she said.

Eva Smalls, who also is black, still has an Obama sign in the window of her small bail bonds office on U.S. Highway 21 and was so enraged by Wilson's comment that she would have protested in front of his Beaufort office if her grandchild's birthday party had not been that day.

"I don't have representation in South Carolina. That's how I feel," she said, adding that Wilson's apology to Obama didn't seem sincere.

"When you apologize, you're supposed to show some humility," she said. "He went on and made a fundraiser out of it. He disrespected his office. He disrespected the president. It makes me ashamed to say I'm a South Carolinian."

But just up the road, some white residents of Wilson's district felt the opposite.

Beverly Hantzmon of St. Helena, who was having lunch at Lowcountry Produce in Lobeco, thought Wilson's remark was great. "He didn't say, 'You are a liar.' He said, 'You lie.' That doesn't even call for an apology in my book."

Her friend Sandy Hull of Dale mostly agreed, "I think people make too much out of this. It's over. Let it go. We all say things on the spur of the moment we wish we hadn't."

Jay Melander, who was building a crab trap a few miles from the river, also applauded Wilson. "I thought it was about time somebody said something. … I think he finally got tired of listening to the stories. "

He didn't think Wilson's remark had a racial tinge. "The only racist thing in there is Jimmy Carter. That's the way I feel," he said.

But Felix Fields, who is black, called Wilson's shout-out a sin and a shame. "He put South Carolina back 100 years with that comment. I was outraged and insulted."

Fields said racism probably did play a role in Wilson's thinking. "I think it is subconscious. I don't think he's an overt racist."

But Laura Anderson, who works at Carolina Cider Co. in Gardens Corners, just south of the bridge in Wilson's district met Wilson through Civil War re-enactors

"I kind of approve of what he did. We do need to stand up and open our mouths. He had a major impact."

"There could have been a better time or place, but maybe that was the time and place to speak out. It made a major impact," she said. "It's not always racism. Sometimes, you just have differences of opinions. He actually spoke for most of the people he represents by saying that."

Debbie Demann, who works with Anderson, said she appreciates how different the South is than from her native Wisconsin. Their store testifies to that because it was built in the early 20th century with four restrooms, one for each gender of each race. Today, three of them are not in use.

"We made one work," Demann said. "One we keep nice."

Vergie Maynard, a black woman who works as the site manager at the Green Pond Senior Center, said she thought Wilson's comment was disrespectful and out of place. "I don't think it was racist. He had his opinion," she said. "They should censure him and let him go."

State Rep. Kenneth F. Hodges, D-Green Pond, said his House district covers both Wilson and Clyburn country.

The pastor called Wilson's remark unfortunate but wasn't sure if racism was a motivation. "I know him. He represents part of the district I represent," he said, adding that he also supported Clyburn's efforts to censure Wilson.

"I think that put Congressman Clyburn in a very awkward position. Being the Majority Whip, he had no other option but to pursue it. I've read the resolution (disapproving of Wilson's action). I think it was quite mild," he said.

"There's a tremendous divide, not just along party lines, but it is a divide along racial lines. Most people tend to think race was a factor, and that crosses racial lines, too," Hodges added. "What I'm hearing, and mainly from the African-American community, is we are not as far forward as they had hoped racially, that this was a unique opportunity for us to bridge that racial divide with the first African-American president, and it seems as though there are some who can't accept that. … It's quite disappointing. Most of them are saying things like the more things change, the more things remain the same."

Jeff Grigg, a white man who runs Island Marine Service not far from the Combahee River in Green Pond, said Wilson showed disrespect pure and simple. And he is concerned the flare-up diverted attention away from reforming the nation's health care system that is broken. His wife lost her job and their insurance last year.

"I think the Republican Party ought to be renamed the Obstructionist Party, not that the Democrats do a lot of great work, either," he said.

Grigg said the spat between Wilson and Clyburn shows how polarized the state's politics can become when the emphasis is on maximizing the number of majority black districts, which in turn maximizes the number of white, conservative districts.

"I think part of the problem goes back to the entire political system," he said. "The districts are gerrymandered so if you're not a white conservative, you can't get elected in Joe Wilson's district. If you're not a black Democrat, you can't win in this district. It ensures people to the extreme side will be elected, and it disenfranchises the rest of the people in the district.

"We just totally left out the entire middle. We don't have a voice."