The above video gives you a small taste of what the Unity Festival at the State House was like yesterday, July 4, 2015.
It was different from the urgent, earnest gathering of two weeks earlier. That one was more intensely pitched at urging our state’s leaders to take down the Confederate flag that flies on the State House grounds. It was a cry from the heart, and at the same time one with relatively little hope for quick action. Folks were mostly there, I believe, to bear witness by their presence that the flag didn’t represent them, whatever our elected leaders did.
But two days later, the event’s three main organizers were present at the miraculous presser at which Gov. Nikki Haley and an extraordinary gathering of other state leaders (including Sen. John Courson!) called for the flag to come down.
As a result, this second demonstration changed focus, and became an occasion for people to celebrate, in a fairly laid-back way, the way black and white, Democrat and Republican have mostly come together on the issue — even though, let me emphasize, it hasn’t happened yet (although we’re moving that way with extraordinary speed, for the SC Legislature).
Basically, the program was half live music, half speakers. In the clip above, I particularly enjoyed that the band was covering Link Wray’s classic “Rumble,” the 1958 guitar instrumental piece that had such huge influence on the guitarists of the ’60s. You’ve heard it a hundred times, probably, as background in a film about surfing, or really almost anything. But few know the name of the piece, or its author. Anyway, it felt just right as background for a pan around the scene. I’m sorry the sound isn’t better.
The crowd was smaller than two weeks earlier, although still respectable for a holiday when so many are out of town or gathering with family (I slipped away before it was over because we were having dinner with my parents and all five of our grandchildren). Estimating it was complicated by the fact that a lot of people were off to the sides, in the shade of trees. The weather wasn’t as hot and humid this time, but there was more direct sun, and it was uncomfortable. Lynn Teague estimated it at 800-1,000. If the first one was indeed 1,500, that sounds about right.
The speakers were… generally not as impressive as at the first rally. And they lacked focus. The Rev. Neal Jones of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation was the first speaker, and he went beyond the flag to call for a litany of lefty causes, such as an increase in the minimum wage. I couldn’t resist saying, via Twitter, that “I guess no Southern Baptists were available.” And indeed, that was the disappointing thing. The consensus in this state to get the flag down — as represented by that group standing with the governor at the aforementioned press conference — is so much broader than this roster of speakers would indicate. I mean, there was no Brett Bursey this time, but Kevin Gray spoke. Enough said.
I had broached this subject with one of the organizers earlier in the week, and the problem largely is that these folks, who are not political consultants, simply didn’t have the contacts for the kinds of speakers that I hoped for — say, Paul Thurmond or the governor herself. (Confession time: I stepped out of my role as journalist so far as to give the organizer the phone number of Matt Moore, chairman of the state GOP. But apparently nothing came of it. I had thought that since Democratic Chair Jaime Harrison had spoken at the first rally, either Matt or some designee would provide balance — and I knew they were both on board on the flag.)
By the way, I had been concerned when I heard that the NAACP was taking over the logistics of the event, even being called the sponsor. You know, on account of its confrontational style, especially the attempt to coerce the state to do the right thing via a boycott, which has done so much over the years to keep lawmakers from wanting to address the issue. But it was cool. Sure, you had the NAACP signage, but aside from a brief address from Lonnie Randolph, the group was cool and low-key, in no way disturbing the whole “Shiny, Happy People” tone of the event.
The best speaker by far was Rep. James Smith. And though as a Democrat he couldn’t symbolically balance the event the way a Paul Thurmond could, he centered the issue nicely, because he was the one speaker focused on the debate coming this week in the real world. He said a lot of things that would never occur to the other speakers — such as noting, as I have done (and as organizer Tom Hall had done two weeks earlier) that it is a gross dishonor to the soldiers who represented South Carolina in the Civil War to fly that flag after they surrendered.
But the most important thing he said, and something we all need to keep in mind and insist upon this week, is this: There must be no compromise this time. As he said, “No flag and no flag pole!” In a shouted conversation before he went on, while one of the bands was playing, he told me he was optimistic, but worried by all the talk of compromises that were swirling around — such as leaving the pole and flying some other flag there.
Absolutely not. This absolutely must be the end to it. Nothing else will answer at this historic moment. The governor, with all those people standing with her, said it was time for the flag to be removed, and that’s it. Get it down, put it in a museum. Period. Otherwise, we’ll be talking about it for another 15 years.