Spend any amount of time with former Charleston Sen. Robert Ford and he will tell you he’s been arrested 73 times for participating in civil rights protests in the 1960s, he walked with Martin Luther King Jr., and he lived in the Poor People’s Campaign’s Resurrection City in Washington, D.C. in 1968.
And, he said, he was the first person to protest the Confederate battle flag flying over the Statehouse dome in Columbia. It was 1969 and he was in South Carolina for the hospital workers’ strike in Charleston.
“Take Down the Confederate Flag,” his sign read. He said he was the only person there that day.
So it may be surprising to some that he was the sole sponsor of what became the Heritage Act, which is now being targeted for its protection of public monuments as protesters around the nation demand removal of pro-slavery and Confederate memorials.
That act is what removed the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse and from inside the building.
“I was a big, big winner in my efforts to take down the flag because I wound up taking down four Confederate flags and really didn’t get no credit,” Ford said. “They haven’t put up a Confederate monument in the last 65, 75 years. Those things were done before Robert Ford came to South Carolina.”
Elected to the Statehouse in 1992, Ford said he wanted to remove the flag from the dome and three others inside the Statehouse building. It took eight years and a NAACP-led boycott of the state for a compromise to emerge.
The flag went up on the Statehouse dome in 1962, as a commemoration of the Civil War’s centennial. It would remain there until 2000 when Ford’s legislation moved it to the Statehouse lawn. There, it remained at a Confederate memorial until lawmakers removed it in 2015 after a white supremacist killed nine black people at a Charleston church.
Charleston Republican Sen. Glenn McConnell, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who later became lieutenant governor and president of the College of Charleston, worked with Ford on the 2000 effort. In an interview this week, Ford referred to McConnell as his “friend from the Confederacy.”
Both men no longer serve in the General Assembly. Ford resigned his seat in 2013 and later pleaded guilty to misusing campaign donations.
“You’re protecting the Confederate monuments but also African American monuments,” Ford said of the Heritage Act. “That’s the way the legislative process works, but 25, 30 years later you can’t act like you’re mad.”
Hopkins Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson, who is still in office, said it “pained” him to go to the Statehouse and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the Confederate flag in the Senate chamber.
Jackson said the deal was the “start of a process.”
“Isn’t that what compromise is about? That no side is a clear winner,” he said. “I knew eventually one day that flag would be removed from the dome, and removed from the yard one day also. I am even more fortunate to have been in the General Assembly to have witnessed that. It thrills me to see the debates as it related to abolishing the Heritage Act.”
The Heritage Act did the following:
-Moved the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome to a Confederate memorial on the Statehouse grounds;
-Removed three battle flags from the inside of the Statehouse;
-Created an African American monument at the Statehouse; and,
-Mandated that any future decisions regarding memorials on public property must be decided by a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate. Those memorials include African American and Native American and those commemorating wars, including the Civil War.
Ford said he was “shocked” that so many people were upset by the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds following the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, and he said he’s surprised now that so many people want to remove statues.
“If South Carolina felt so strongly what’s going on now they need to blame their ancestors, their fathers and mothers. Where were they before Robert Ford got here?” Ford said. “(They) didn’t say nothing about an African American monument, an African American holiday and nothing else related to them feeling some kind of pride. I knew as a state senator I wanted to get stuff done to benefit black people. I did a damn good job.”
Still, Ford said he supports any further action removing white supremacist monuments.
“If they want to try to take down anything they want to take down, more power to them,” he said. “And then 50 years from now you’re going to have another generation wanting to change stuff.”