$10M holiday price tag criticized: Taxpayers foot the bill for Confederate Memorial Day

In this file photo, Dale Smith of Johnsonville, S.C., holds a Confederate flag as he looks out to Fort Sumter from the Battery in downtown Charleston while waiting for cannons to be fired to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War on Tuesday, April 12, 2011.

Commemorating the soldiers who died defending the Stars and Bars will cost South Carolina taxpayers about $10 million today.

That's because Confederate Memorial Day is one of 13 paid holidays for the state's 60,000-plus employees, according to data from the S.C. Budget and Control Board.

During a challenging budget year that has seen a host of public service cuts, at least one critic called the holiday a waste of public money that would be better used on education, health care or job creation.

"Our taxpayer money is funding a holiday for our oppressors' descendants," said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It's gotta go."

Gov. Nikki Haley, who has made it her administration's mission to root out government waste, disagreed.

"Reopening this debate (will) be a distraction that will not create one job or educate one child," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement.

South Carolina is one of four states in the South to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day in honor of Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War, which marks its 150th anniversary this year. The other states that commemorate the day as a legal, paid holiday for state employees are Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, which all celebrate on April 25.

S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who is black, sponsored a bill that became law in 2000 to make Confederate Memorial Day a state holiday. The bill also made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday.

Making May 10 a paid day off for state workers was a sort of political olive branch, Ford said Monday. Using the term "Confederate" to mean white, Southern descendants of plantation owners and Civil War soldiers, Ford summed it up this way: "It looks like a bargaining tool to conspire with Confederates to get stuff done for black folks," he said. "That is the result, but that is not why I did it. People should be willing to accept the Confederacy for what it is."

Even with the national Memorial Day less than three weeks away, Ford called today's celebration "the most needed holiday in the state" for fostering racial understanding. With the S.C. Legislature in the midst of budget debate, any discussion of abandoning the holiday would "create racial bitterness," he said.

He added: "Not one state employee called to say, 'I don't want the day off.' "

Beyond the taxpayer waste, though, the NAACP's Scott sees the day as a remnant of the old South's "plantation mindset" and as a hurtful reminder of a tragic chapter in American history.

"It's a reminder of how African-Americans were perceived as non-humans," she said. "Just because it's history doesn't mean it needs to be celebrated."

Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550.

TODAY

10 a.m.: Moultrie Camp No. 27 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Ladies Memorial Association will hold a memorial service at the Confederate Cemetery on Carr Street in Mount Pleasant.

3 p.m.: United Daughters of the Confederacy will hold a memorial service at Magnolia Cemetery, 70 Cunnington Ave. Fort Sumter historian Rick Hatcher will speak.

7 p.m.: Genealogist Eric Stroschein will present his original research on the Hunley and its crew at the home of English-Speaking Union President Kelvin Brockbank, 81 Rutledge Ave. It's a black-tie event, and a $10 donation is requested. An optional supper (not included in the $10) will follow at the 1880 Restaurant at the Wentworth Mansion. Space is limited, and reservations for the talk or supper are requested at 367-7781.

SATURDAY

10 a.m.: The Confederate Heritage Trust will hold a memorial ceremony in Magnolia Cemetery. The South Carolina Ladies Auxiliary will provide refreshments.

MAY 21

10 a.m.: Gen. Ellison Capers Camp No. 1212 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will sponsor a memorial ceremony at Wassamassaw Baptist Church, 704 Wassamassaw Lane in Moncks Corner. State Division Commander Mark Simpson will speak.