I was at a meeting of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust last spring when chairman Robert Rosen brought up the idea of inviting President Barack Obama to Charleston on April 12, 2011, for the 150th anniversary observance of the firing on Fort Sumter.
The Historical Trust is an impressive group of scholars and civic leaders who are planning activities to observe the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. I had my doubts about extending the invitation to President Obama at the time, but said nothing. I have since stopped attending Historical Trust meetings on a regular basis. Still, I found it disconcerting last month when I read that the Fort Sumter National Monument, run by the National Park Service, had officially extended the invitation to the president. The plan calls for Obama to narrate Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” during a commemorative concert in White Point Garden, overlooking the harbor and the distant fort.
I am sure it would be a moving moment. The music is stirring, the narrative poignant. And I think the president would be a natural for the role. But, frankly, I hope the White House staff or the Secret Service or Michelle Obama or somebody looks the president in the eye and says, “Stay away from Charleston on April 12.”
The invitation was extended in utmost respect and, I think, affection for the president. The young Illinois senator came to Charleston early in his presidential campaign to meet local Democratic Party leaders at a private residence on the Battery. He wowed everyone that day, went on to win the nomination, and carried Charleston County on Election Day, more than a year later. Speaking to the multitude in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of his triumph, he referred to “the porches of Charleston” as an early milestone of his campaign.
I think there is great mutual affection between the president and the City of Charleston. But I am also aware that my opinion of President Obama is not held universally in this city and even less so in the state at large. For that reason, I think it would be a good idea for the president to find something else to do on April 12.
I will be blunt: I think the president might be in danger if he came to this historically loaded city on that emotionally loaded date. I am confident his security team could protect him from almost any eventuality, but I see no point in inviting an “incident” that would embarrass the state and haunt the city for years to come.
Am I being dramatic? Perhaps, but this is a town that loves drama and acts out in bizarre and inappropriate ways. Exhibit A: The Secession Gala held at Gaillard Auditorium last month, in which several hundred white people donned hoop skirts and Confederate uniforms to celebrate the dissolution of the Union. Exhibit B: State Senate Pro Tem Glenn McConnell of Charleston, who loves to parade around in his Confederate uniform. Last fall he appeared before a gathering of Republican women in Charleston, along with other period re-enactors, including a black couple who appeared to be dressed as slaves. Exhibit C: The angry and irrational letters to area newspapers, denouncing “Northern aggression” and calling Abraham Lincoln a tyrant and a murderer.
Such behavior is not violence, but it is a vindication and a celebration of violence. And this city has been committing and celebrating violence as a political tool for a long time, including the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861.
I would argue that anger and the threat of violence have been the primary political motivator in South Carolina for two centuries. Generations of ranters and ravers have sprung from this state’s soil. We got a taste of that tradition last year when 2nd Congressional District Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress with the shout, “You lie!” Sen. Jim DeMint swore to make healthcare reform Obama’s “Waterloo.” The atmosphere in this state was so toxic in 2010 that the Secret Service nixed a planned visit here by the First Lady.
April 12, 2011, will be fraught with meaning — too much meaning for some, I fear. The image of a black president from a Northern state gazing out over Fort Sumter and delivering an elegy to Abraham Lincoln might be too much for some susceptible minds to endure.
Charleston is famous for its courtesy and its hospitality. But history shows that it takes only one misguided person with a gun to ruin the day for the whole country. I suspect there are many misguided people in Charleston and in South Carolina. I know there are many guns.
For that reason, I make this sincere plea to President Obama: You will have other opportunities to visit the Holy City. Please stay away on April 12.