America's race relations: haunted by the lynch mobs

The statue of Ben 'Pitchfork' Tillman in Columbia,South Carolina is a memorial to a notorious racist –and a reminder that the issue is central to Saturday's Democratic vote. Leonard Doyle reports

It's a short walk from the elegant antebellum state house of the Old Confederacy to the overflowing pews of the Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, where the Rev Charles Jackson Jr was thundering out his message yesterday. "Fight the master-slave mentality," he roared at his parishioners, using a vocabulary that would be archaic anywhere else in the US.

A chasm still separates the black people of South Carolina from what Rev Jackson calls their white "brothers and sisters". It is a deep division, as was apparent after a short parade from the porch of Rev Jackson's church to the domed statehouse, where the marchers congregated in the shadow of the South's most defiant symbol of white supremacy, the battle flag of the Confederacy.

Across the street from where the marchers were honouring the assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, a small group of white secessionists jeered. They spoke of keeping alive the memory of the "lost cause", a euphemism for racial domination. Uniformed police and secret service agents mingled with the crowd, watchful for trouble.

The flag and other symbols of racism stir up considerable animosity in Columbia but there is also a healthy accommodation between black and whites. There is an agreement to share the political space.

What is striking, however, is how the black and white communities live such separate lives that they do not even share the same electoral calendar for the primary contests.

Separate lunch counters for blacks and whites and other aspects of institutionalised racism may have been banned decades ago, but here in the South, more subtle ways have been found of keeping the colour bar intact.

One result is that those voting in this Saturday's Democratic contest will be as overwhelmingly black as last Saturday's Republican electorate was predominantly white. South Carolina is one of the "red states" on the electoral map, one that has not voted for a Democratic candidate in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter ran in 1980. For most of the state's white voters, the primary contest that mattered was the Republican one, which took place on Saturday. The Democratic primary will be an almost entirely African-American affair.

The decision to hold primary elections a week apart means that Barack Obama's crossover appeal with independent voters and republicans will not be tested here. The parallel universe blacks and whites voters occupy in South Carolina is not even open to question at this stage.

Shaped by separate histories, the communities can seem as divided as the loyalists and nationalists of Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles. Give and take among elected officials leads to workable if uneasy compromises, rather than conflict.

Thus, black and white politicians succeeded in agreeing to have the provocative Confederate flag removed from the top of the dome of the state house to a flagpole in the grounds. An alliance of black and white legislators voted for a state holiday celebrating the Confederacy. As part of that deal, a monument was erected to the long and troubled journey from slavery to modern America.

It depicts the tragedy of the "middle passage" from Africa to South Carolina and describes how at the peak, 400,000 slaves were bought and sold in the elegant port city of Charleston. It ends by describing the achievements of their descendants.

The monument also celebrates the first African-American astronaut, Ronald McNair, who came from nearby Lake City and perished on the shuttle Challenger in 1986. It also celebrates Clarence Thomas, the deeply conservative Supreme Court justice, who grew up dirt-poor on the coast, speaking Gullah, a hybrid patois of English and various African tongues.

But also in the statehouse grounds, where the marchers gathered to hear seemingly endless speeches yesterday, is a more controversial memorial to the confederacy. It comprises a rogue's gallery of statues from South Carolina's past, foremost of which is a statue of Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman, one of the most notorious racists in US history.

First as governor and later as US senator for South Carolina during the First World War, he both encouraged and participated in the lynching of black people across the state. His actions led directly to the lynching in of Frazier Baker, a 40-year-old schoolteacher who was made postmaster for Lake City.

Encouraged by Tillman, a mob of more than 300 people surrounded Baker's house, set it on fire and shot at the fleeing occupants. The partially burned bodies of Baker and an infant girl were found the next day by investigators, who counted hundreds of bullet holes in the walls.

There were many other lynching episodes across the state, but no one was ever brought to justice and legal inquiries typically concluded that the victim had died "at the hands of persons unknown". The pretty old opera house and narrow streets of Abbeville, where a wealthy black farmer called Anthony Crawford fought for his life against a mob in 1916, now forms the unofficial regional "wedding capital" for couples across the South.

After arguing with a store-owner over the price of cottonseed, Crawford was hunted down and dragged through the town's black district with a rope around his neck. His body was suspended from a pine tree where it was used for target practice. "Negro strung up and shot to pieces", read the next day's headline.

When only three years ago, the US Senate finally apologised for doing nothing to halt the lynching of more than 4,700 blacks over decades, Barack Obama brought up the case of Anthony Crawford, who he said was lynched nearly 100 years ago for the crime of being a successful black farmer. "There are more ways to perpetuate violence than simply a lynching," he said then.

He might well have been thinking of a case that only ended last week when Charles Daniels, a black man from Greenville, received a record $2.5m from Lockheed, the world's largest arms maker, after being threatened by his co-workers.

Mr Daniels' colleagues at Lockheed, all former soldiers, were annoyed at the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the dome of the statehouse eight years ago. One threatened to lynch him or bury him in a roadside grave where his body would never be found.

Another said the country would have been better off had the South won the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as it is known south of the Mason-Dixon line). Another co-worker told him that blacks should have been exterminated, the way Adolf Hitler dealt with Jews.

Weekly Ku Klux Klan newsletters were distributed in an employee break room in Lockheed's Greenville factory, part of the state that is now thriving thanks to the influx of hundreds of European companies, most notably BMW. "They told me they knew some people in the Aryan Brotherhood and they could make me disappear," Mr Daniels said when the case finally came to court.

Two of Mr Daniels' tormentors have now been sacked and the rest have been ordered to attend racial sensitivity classes, to ensure other episodes do not occur.

Greenville does not share the multicultural enthusiasm of the rest of America for Mr Obama's electoral campaign.

In front of the Bob Jones University, the deeply conservative bible college, is the Clock Diner. It has yet to remove the separate entrance built especially for blacks when the restaurant was first opened.

There I met a black taxi driver, George Harrison, picking up his food at the takeaway side. "This entrance was built long, long time ago," he said. "I just use it for convenience." But over the course of an hour, however, not a single black customer came and sat inside the small diner.

Yesterday, as Columbia shivered in bitter weather, the three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination sat through long speeches as officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) railed against injustice and denounced the symbols of racism all around them.

"Take that flag down – it is time to take it down," said one speaker, issuing a rhetorical order he knew could not be obeyed.

Looking miserably cold, Mr Obama, Hillary Clinton and native South Carolinian John Edwards waited patiently before making their pitch for votes in what is set to be one of the most bitterly fought battles of the presidential election campaign.

Even as they looked out on the Confederate flag and the symbols of institutionalised racism, none of the candidates broached the subject, fearful no doubt of causing another flap over race which has become the "third rail" of the election which both candidate are fearful to touch.

The excitement in the black community at seeing the first viable black candidate running for the presidency is tempered by doubts and uncertainties. Many say that however great their pride in Mr Obama's historic run for the White House, they are wary of the violence they fear his election could unleash, fearful even that it could lead to his assassination.

These were some of the worries that Rev Jackson tried to confront before the march to the statehouse. "When you turn against your brother, you are wrong," he said, in what some saw as a reference to Mr Obama's candidacy. "Your brother is not your enemy. If you are at war with the wrong one, you remain oppressed and at war with the wrong one and fighting the wrong enemy."

For rolling comment on the US elections, visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

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