These days, politicians rarely deserve credit when they get around to taking bold and decisive action. Their basic job requirement is to represent the will of the people, after all. For years in South Carolina, the conscience of our state has been heard in the cries of its activists, not the halls of Columbia.
Maybe there was a time when statewide political leaders in South Carolina put their necks on the line and initiated change on their own. That has not been the story of the Palmetto State of my generation. The principles of effective democracy, along with the spirits of many South Carolinians, have been gutted in this state for decades, replaced by the will of cruel leaders heartened only by low unemployment and corporate giveaways.
To be honest, speaking out is not all that hard in a state where the governor refuses to listen to science. (Maybe he’ll mandate masks.) Or refuses to acknowledge pleas of the ignored. (She’ll call for the flag to come down eventually.) Or when schools and skin color still determine our young people’s fates. (Education reform will happen one day.)
The loud, insistent, unapologetic and moral voices of activists are among the only constants when change has happened in this state. We need their demands today more than ever.
We have come to expect so little of our leaders that without pressure to take action and persevere in the face of criticism, they can skate by doing the bare minimum. Worse, they earn praise or feel the heat for doing what any normal person could tell you is the right thing outside of the insidious world of politics. (Think: State Rep. Nancy Mace boasting a measure banning the shackling of pregnant inmates or U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham drawing pushback over opposing offshore drilling.)
In South Carolina, where politicians are often security blankets for the status quo, when new policies emerge, you can bet the activists and dissidents were there first.
In just the past 70 years: Before Jim Crow ended, there was Minerva Brown, Harvey Gantt and others at a King Street lunch counter. Before Charleston hospital workers got a voice, there was Mary Moultrie. Before the Confederate flag came down, there was Bree Newsome. Before the idea of LGBTQ rights became mainstream, there was John Zeigler and Edwin Peacock. Before Calhoun was cut away, days of protests by young activists called out the staggering toll of systemic racism.
In Charleston, it was activists, not politicians, who started the preservation movement. Activists got a Charleston police audit for racial bias done — and another on the way in North Charleston. Activists have pushed against over-eager developers snapping up open land and oil companies drilling off our beaches. Activists marched in the street as our police showcased violent military tactics. Activists young and old, some of whom have navigated to the halls of power, applied pressure to topple Calhoun.
But above all, a diverse and dynamic movement of individuals — not personally interested politicians — is what will break us free from endless, unproductive speculation on issues that affect us all.
“Protests will change some things, but I think people as a whole, will have to change themselves individually inside,” said Councilman Robert Mitchell, a veteran of the civil rights movement himself.
Our state’s righteously independent leaders seem determined to go on needlessly punishing people who don’t fit into their limited view of reality. But give them time, a few choice words and maybe a political opponent and watch when they pick up a sign and start marching.
Sam Spence is editor of Charleston City Paper.