Members of city council gather in front of the Calhoun monument before its dismantling in 2020 | Sam Spence file photo

The 545-page report from Charleston’s Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation will be considered by city committees despite a vote Tuesday against formally accepting it as requested by the group’s chairmen. But after a heated five-hour meeting that included angry debate over a mask mandate, leaders took initial steps toward establishing the group that created it as a permanent city commission.

The report, introduced earlier this month, contains 125 recommendations on how the Holy City can deal with issues like criminal justice reform, economic empowerment, health disparities and environmental justice. It was a yearlong effort to build Charleston into an “actively anti-racist government.” Charleston City Council voted to create the special commission in June 2020. The commission was made of 49 experts and volunteers representing groups from the community.

But at Tuesday’s council meeting on Daniel Island, some residents showed deep unhappiness about the effectiveness of the commission and the content of its report.

During public comment, West Ashley resident Brett Barry said the report brought “divisiveness in the name of unity,” invoking the name of former Mayor Joe Riley.

Marcus McDonald spoke Tuesday in favor of the commission’s report | Screenshot

Black Lives Matter Charleston leader Marcus McDonald, shouting over detractors in the crowd, said the commission set out to “right what was wrong,” and needed to see its recommendations through to implementation.

“We do live in a racist country and this is a racist city,” he said. “And y’all don’t need no ‘critical race theory,’ because you’re standing on a plantation right now,” referring to Cainhoy peninsula plantation fields where enslaved people were forced to work.

Debates during public comment and among council members over the report mirror controversial political issues nationally, including critical race theory, reparations and reallocating police resources.

Many feel that the language of the commission report should stay, and anything less would be a disservice to its members’ work. 

“We lead with race because racial inequity persists across every system,” said Amber Johnson, Charleston’s manager of diversity, racial reconciliation and tolerance.

Johnson presented council with information about the report Tuesday | Screenshot

Some feel the council should wait before taking any action so residents can better understand the report. And still others think it should be ripped up altogether.

One sticking point for members of council was whether action was required Tuesday, now that the report was on their desks.

“Simply just receiving it is not enough,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, one of the commission’s co-chairs.

“For me, it is very, very important that this council sends the message. While we’re not accepting [or] adopting, we are, however, wanting to be able to send this to the appropriate standing committee or committees for consideration to move forward with any recommendations,” he said.

“What we are trying to do is multigenerational work. It is not going to happen in six months, a year, but longer than that.”

After a protracted back-and-forth over parliamentary procedure, councilmembers voted against Gregorie’s symbolic motion to formally receive the report. But even without the vote, the mayor said the report would be disseminated to the appropriate committees.

Immediately afterward, council passed a first reading of an ordinance to make the equity commission that created the report a permanent city body with just one dissenting vote from Councilman Harry Griffin.