When former City Paper columnist Will Moredock began putting together his recently released collection Living in Fear: Race, Politics, and the Republican Party in South Carolina about the integral role that white fear of black people has played in South Carolina’s history and politics, he never thought that his premise would be so horrifically illustrated in real life as it has been in the past few months.
In March, Charleston saw the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot to death by white police officer Michael Slager. And just two weeks ago, nine black community members were murdered during a Bible study in the historic Emanuel AME Church, allegedly by Dylann Roof, a man who by all indications is a white supremacist. “It’s a very appropriate time to talk about white people’s fear of black people,” Moredock says with fervor. “It confirms everything I was writing. There’s a pathology here.”
Moredock has been writing about this idea and its ramifications in the City Paper and elsewhere since 2002, mainly in his former weekly column, “The Good Fight.” It’s these columns that form the body of Living in Fear — 71 of them, to be exact, which he selected from his even 500. The columns touch on education, violence, poverty, and many other issues, all of which, Moredock has said, can be traced back to the state’s singularly backward politics and violently racist history.
In case you still need to be convinced of that fact, Living in Fear opens with a new, original 7,000 word essay called 300 Years of Living in Fear. In it, Moredock takes the reader through an extensive history of South Carolina slavery and racism. “Unlike several of the English colonies of North America, South Carolina was not founded out of any lofty notion of providing religious freedom or sanctuary to debtors and miscreants,” he writes in the essay. “The ships which brought settlers into Charleston Harbor in 1670 also brought black slaves from the Caribbean. The settlers were from the English colony of Barbados, a small Caribbean island of sugar plantations, made possible only by the use of thousands of slaves. The Carolina colony was an attempt to bring the culture and economy of that overcrowded little island to the continental mainland.”
As the slave population grew to greatly outnumber whites, the fear of slave rebellion became a governing force in the life, culture, and politics of South Carolina’s ruling class. “It was a terror which robbed them of sleep, shaped their politics and society, seeped into their subconscious and into the very marrow of their bones. Fear was as pervasive and debilitating as the summer heat,” the essay continues. Moredock goes on to explain how that even as that fear morphed, as America continued through emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, it remained — and remains — a bedrock element of state politics.
Moredock does not say this from an outsider or academic point of view. Born and raised in South Carolina, he experienced all of this himself. “In the 1950s and ’60s observing family and friends, and myself, in early experiences, as long as I was in a place that was understood to be controlled by white people — a public place, street, where it was understood it was the white man’s territory, I was comfortable. When we went out of that comfortable zone into a black neighborhood, a black church, whatever, there was tension,” he says. “There’s apprehension for a lot of white people, a very vague, very unclear feeling, but they seem to feel there’s danger if black people are in control of this moment, this place, this situation.” It’s a travesty and a tragedy that those feelings are, as recent events have shown, very much alive and well in the hearts of some Southerners.
As any writer knows, there’s always more to say than can fit in a single book, and the same is true for Moredock. He’s written a second essay on South Carolina history (you can read it online at livinginfearbook.com), this time, focusing on the consequences of South Carolina’s obstinate refusal to let go of the mythic ideal of the Confederacy. It’s an expansive piece, touching on topics including S.C. Representative Joe Wilson’s legendary “You lie!” outburst during a 2009 speech by President Barack Obama, the GOP’s aversion to science, and the evolution of political language aimed at keeping down African Americans in the South. “Those two essays were some of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write,” Moredock says. “When you start talking about hate, and curing hate, it becomes a philosophical, spiritual question.”
As Moredock said in a June 21 column for the City Paper about the Emanuel AME shooting, it seems that that age-old fear and the hate that stems from it, in this city, at least, may be on the verge of changing. If that change happens, it will be a first step toward bringing South Carolina into the present. “Our politics have been so screwed up for so many generations, and why? Because our energies have been dedicated to controlling black people instead of governing for all people. It’s held us back. The old African-American adage, ‘You can keep your foot on my neck, but you can’t go anywhere with your foot on my neck’ — that describes the South perfectly. We haven’t gone anywhere. We’re stuck in the past.”