I guess we should all be warmed by recent news of two old codgers who refuseto retire, who say they just want to keep working to make Charleston County a better place to live.
Maybe we should be, but I’m not. The codgers in question are 78-year-old Arthur Ravenel and 71-year-old John Graham Altman III. The former has served in the General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives; the latter, on the Charleston County School Board and in the General Assembly. Both have made names for themselves for their vituperative and racially charged remarks. Now both are running for the county school board in a racially strained atmosphere, and it is widely assumed that they will be seeking the ouster of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.
But first, some background: both of these old white men are dinosaurs, relics of an ugly age when racial slurs were as much a part of the political landscape as public prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Arthur Ravenel will ultimately be remembered for two things: the magnificent new bridge, which spans the Cooper River and bears his name; and his 2000 remark referring to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as the National Association of Retarded People. He never apologized for that smear and, more recently, he clashed again with the NAACP when that organization asked him to clarify his position regarding Goodloe-Johnson. Ravenel declined, calling the venerable civil rights organization “irrelevant.”
But the really troubling specter on the school board horizon is John Graham Altman. Throughout his 30 years in public life, Altman has been an unrepentant racist and homophobe, a private hypocrite of breathtaking arrogance. I have written about him here numerous times, and as long he continues to make himself a public figure, I will continue to cover him with ink.
In 20 contentious years on the Charleston County School Board, from 1976 to 1996, Altman was a constant source of friction, once saying of his fellow board members, “It’s very difficult to deal with a governing body that is about equal to the first seven or eight people who respond to a Kmart blue light special on pillowcases.”
Former fellow Boardmember Robert New said of Altman, “He’s a demagogue. He truly is and that’s sad because he’s so bright. John was the person who should have been something great in this world.”
After his election to the General Assembly in 1996, Altman continued to get into ugly disputes with black lawmakers, make flippant remarks about battered women, and carry on a personal crusade against the “homosexual agenda.” In his ceaseless campaign to preserve the sanctity of marriage from gays, he failed to point out that is twice divorced, and that he was once jailed for failure to pay child support.
One suspects that Ravenel and Altman will seek to have Goodloe-Johnson fired because 1) her brief tenure with the school district has been fraught with missteps and disappointments and 2) she’s black. It is difficult to imagine any mortal taking this troubled, besieged, under-funded school district and turning it around in only two years. The fact that she has failed is very convenient for her detractors.
It is inconceivable that these two bilious old politicians have a solution to any of the problems facing Charleston County’s schools. The violence and dropout rate have deep roots, which cannot be fully addressed by any school board or superintendent. They are symptoms of ancient pathologies, of modern poverty, of the breakdown of the black family. And the attitudes of people like Ravenel and Altman are part of the problem.
Like many observers — including these old politicians — I am disgusted by the violent and antisocial behavior manifested in our schools. From my apartment here on Rutledge Avenue, I see expressions of it almost daily: after school, the sidewalks ring with the voices of young people screaming their threats and curses at one another; streets and sidewalks get a fresh layer of litter from these young pedestrians who do not know what trash cans are for; local businesses post signs saying only three students at a time allowed inside.
These kids are already on the wrong track and may never find a responsible and productive place in the world. Their behavior is a sad commentary on much of society.
But what can one say about Ravenel and Altman, who have spent their careers trashing the public forum with their bile and bigotry? And what can you say about the white people who keep electing them, year after year?
There is plenty of pathological, antisocial behavior in this racially divided city. It takes different forms on different sides of the racial line, but one cannot avoid the deep suspicion that they are somehow related, and driving each other like twin demons on the road to Hell.