Wilson's shout reopens South Carolina's racial wounds

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — South Carolina's bitter history of racial politics has drawn national attention before, from Strom Thurmond's segregationist White House run in 1948 and the black daughter he never acknowledged to the Confederate flag flying at the statehouse and Bob Jones University's ban on interracial dating.

Now, 10 months after the election of a self-styled post-racial black president, two South Carolina politicians have helped to reopen the country's deepest, most festering wound and amplify a nearly four-century argument that President Barack Obama has made it clear he wants to avoid.

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson — at first sorry for yelling, "You lie" at Obama as he addressed a joint session of Congress, but defiant since — is being hailed as a hero by conservative activists. They're inviting Wilson to speak in other states and sending him campaign contributions from across the country — almost $2 million since his now-famous shout.

At a large anti-Obama rally outside the U.S. Capitol three days after Wilson's outburst, thousands cheered when one speaker exclaimed, "I thank God for Congressman Wilson!"

Wilson's sudden prominence is being driven, in part, by the anger of another South Carolina politician, House of Representatives Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Clyburn and other black Democratic lawmakers compelled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call a vote reprimanding Wilson that she didn't feel was necessary.

The day after his outburst, Wilson was asked whether it was tied to Obama's race.

"No, no," he told McClatchy. "I respect the president."

Former President Jimmy Carter, a son of the South and a Nobel Peace laureate, poured salt on the wound on Sept. 9 by accusing Wilson of racism on live, prime-time television.

"I think it's based on racism," Carter said Tuesday when he was asked about Wilson's outburst during a town hall meeting in Atlanta. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

"Congressman Wilson believes that President Carter's remarks are a distraction from the task at hand, which is a respectful debate over health insurance reform and working to bring jobs to our communities," said Ryan Murphy, a Wilson spokesman.

In videos on his campaign Web site, joewilsonforcongress.com, Wilson says he's "under attack by liberals" but vows he "will not be muzzled."

Obama has resisted getting drawn into any racial dispute.

Obama said he'd accepted Wilson's apology, and it was time to move on. "The president does not believe the (broader) criticism comes based on the color of his skin," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The specter of racially tinged politics still looms in South Carolina, however.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of about 200 black publishers, moved its planned January 2010 convention from Charleston to Charlotte, N.C., after Wilson's yell.

"We are asking people not to go to South Carolina and to make sure we do not spend our hard-earned money in a place where we are not wanted," Danny Bakewell, the association's chairman, told McClatchy.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has cited Wilson's 1999 vote against removing the Confederate flag from atop the South Carolina capitol dome — Wilson was one of only seven state senators to oppose the move.

Clyburn also has cited Wilson's "membership in some groups that call into question his feelings about the whole notion of white supremacy."

Pressed about that claim Wednesday, Clyburn declined to repeat it. "I have said that over time that he became affiliated with groups. I didn't say 'member;' I said that he was affiliated with these groups," Clyburn said in an interview with McClatchy.

Wilson's campaign Web site lists the Sons of Confederate Veterans among numerous groups to which he belongs. The Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't include the Sons of Confederate Veterans among the hate groups it tracks, though a center analyst said about 2,000 SCV members are white supremacists.

Clyburn also said that Wilson made "very vile comments" in December 2003 when a Los Angeles woman, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, said she was the biracial daughter of Strom Thurmond, born out of wedlock to the late senator and a black, 16-year-old maid in his household.

Wilson, who served as a page for Thurmond early in his political career, said then that the former governor and segregationist presidential candidate was a personal hero. He called Washington-Williams' claim "a smear on the image that (Thurmond) has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina."

In a subsequent bow to historical accuracy, Washington-Williams' name was added to the list of Thurmond's children on a monument to him on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.

The racial heat around the Wilson episode dismays Walter Edgar, the head of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Edgar, the author of a definitive history of South Carolina, said the state has made great strides toward binding its racial wounds in recent years.

Edgar points to the election returns last November, when 26 percent of white South Carolinians voted for Obama — a larger share than Obama got in the other Deep South states of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

The professor also noted that two years ago, a General Assembly dominated by white, male Republicans put a black man, Donald Beatty, on the South Carolina Supreme Court.

"We in South Carolina have come a long way," Edgar said. "This isn't a perfect world, but things have changed."

Edgar fears that the whole Wilson "you lie" fiasco is a step backward for the state.

"This is very unfortunate for South Carolina," he said. "It is not helpful for the state to be in the national and even international spotlight.

"Coming on the heels of the (Gov. Mark) Sanford soap opera, this does not present the state in a positive light."

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For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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