Black Lives Matter in South Carolina

Black Lives Matter in South Carolina

South Carolina has always been a battleground of larger, national campaigns for racial justice.

Modjeska Monteith Simkins in Columbia, S.C., 1982 (South Carolina Progressive Network)

Editors’ note: This article is part of a special section on American Movements from our forthcoming summer issue, which went to press before last week’s murder of nine black congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.


When intellectuals and pundits talk about race in America, the South takes on a dual role. At times, the South functions as an exceptional part of the nation, a region where white supremacy is the default mindset. It escapes redemption, and it cannot be reformed. This, at least, is the depressing view often espoused on liberal and left blogs, or coursing through the pages of otherwise “forward-thinking” magazines. However, at other moments, the South becomes a beacon of hope—Moral Mondays in North Carolina and the Fight for $15 campaign have inspired activists both within and beyond the South. If we can win here, liberals believe, we can win anywhere in the United States.

Southern activists don’t have the luxury of waiting for the “right” moment to make their demands. The Moral Monday campaigns in North Carolina, led by the NAACP and its state president, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, was a response to a growing right-wing resurgence in the state. Dr. Barber’s campaign against the rejection of Medicaid money and against cuts to education has inspired movements across the South and reinvigorated our sense of what is politically possible. And so, despite the dwindling odds of influencing Republican-dominated (and, especially in the Carolinas, Tea Party–dominated) state legislatures, activists must continue to fight on for a wide variety of causes, including against police brutality.

As we know, police violence is not a distinctly Southern phenomenon. African American men have died at the hands of the police in places as disparate as Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, deaths that have pushed thousands of people into the streets and against a broken system of law and order. In fact, until recently, the state of South Carolina has even been held up as an example of how the authorities should respond to police violence. This past fall, shortly after the police shooting of Michael Brown and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, South Carolina State trooper Sean Groubert shot unarmed African American Levar Jones when he reached into his car for his driver’s license. Groubert was immediately fired by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety after a video of the shooting went viral online. Soon after that, Groubert was charged with assault and battery by prosecutors in Richland County (where the shooting took place). Unlike in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it seemed as if the state had some semblance of common sense—it properly punished an officer for assaulting an African American man without reason.

Around this time, a Black Lives Matter campaign was already growing in South Carolina, ignited by the national debates over police violence in the wake of the Brown and Garner cases. In Columbia, Black Lives Matter included activists from the South Carolina Progressive Network, an organization that has led progressive and left movements in the state for twenty years. The SCPN laid the groundwork for Black Lives Matter by harnessing the deep disgust among local communities at what has been happening to black people across the nation. As with all the Black Lives Matter campaigns, however, the movement in South Carolina examined problems of police brutality and anti-black violence through a local lens. While the Jones case moved so fast that the Black Lives Matter campaign barely had time to mobilize around it, long-standing issues came to dominate the conversation within the movement: lack of racial information on police-initiated traffic stops, the disproportionally high percentage of police killings of black civilians (about 40 percent of all incidents in 2013), a near-zero conviction rate of police officers accused of illegally shooting civilians, and racial bias in selection of grand juries, among others.

From the start, activists within Black Lives Matter in Columbia debated a variety of questions. First off, what to call ourselves? African American members expressed interest in making the group as broad-based as possible and had no qualms about a name like “All Lives Matter.” Others suggested “Simple Justice: Black Lives Matter,” based on the belief that the demands for reform being made by the organization—such as use of body cameras by officers or recording all stops made by the police for data on the race and ethnicity of those stopped—were relatively simple demands.

South Carolina, however, is not a simple place. Pundits frequently joke about not being surprised by police brutality in the region, but to understand both the context and the challenges that activists face, we must acknowledge the unique history of a state where it is still radical to talk about race. South Carolina, after all, has for two centuries played a central role in how Americans both black and white understand race relations in the rest of the country. Once its capital city, Charleston was one of North America’s bustling slave ports, and its most famous representative, John Calhoun, was one of the most important intellectual defenders of slavery. South Carolina was also the nexus of the grand experiment in biracial government known as Reconstruction, brought to a bloody and ignoble end with the Compromise of 1877.

But in the twentieth century, the state was also one of the main battlegrounds in the fight against segregation. Briggs v. Elliott was the first of a number of school desegregation cases that eventually led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Even in the Black Power era, traditionally associated with activists in places such as Oakland, Chicago, and New York City, South Carolina was the site of radical activism. African Americans here formed the United Citizens Party, an all-black political party formed in order to elect black candidates to office. The Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, when three young black men were killed by state troopers near the historically black South Carolina State University, also radicalized African Americans in the state. In fact, one might argue that the protests following the Massacre were an early example of activism against modern police brutality in the state. Knowing this history is crucial to understanding what the Black Lives Matter campaign in South Carolina must continue to grapple with: bridging a black-white divide in the state’s body politic that has never fully healed. At the same time, this history of activism is also a reminder for today’s organizers that South Carolina has always been a battleground of larger, national civil and economic rights campaigns.

Simple Justice itself sits on the cusp of past and present. It brings together a coalition of seasoned veterans and those newly mobilized by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others. All Simple Justice meetings are also held at the Simkins House, the historic home of legendary civil rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins, a prominent member of the state chapter of the NAACP, and Director of Negro Work for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association (at the time, its most prominent and only full-time black public health worker). South Carolina’s civil rights history is present in the room as activists debate contemporary problems, which often on further reflection do not seem all that new—they are simply the latest iterations of the white supremacy and economic injustice that has historically plagued the state.

Several rallies have also been held at the South Carolina Statehouse to draw attention to police brutality. With a Confederate flag planted on the statehouse grounds, there is always a historical irony that imbues any protest on behalf of black freedom held here. On the November evening when the Simple Justice campaign held one of its largest demonstrations in solidarity with other groups across the country, protesters noted this irony. Some laughed, accustomed to Columbia’s propensity for displaying historical irony in every corner of the city. Others sighed and shook their heads, because it was a reminder of how hard reform will be in South Carolina.

Reform is going to be especially difficult because of the right-wing resurgence in the state. The Republican Party of South Carolina, whose support base lies upstate, has so far shown little interest in changing any existing laws to improve police accountability. Keenly aware of this, Simple Justice has since November shifted focus away from marches and large protests to the work of lobbying politicians and educating the public about the police and their treatment of African Americans in South Carolina. Simple Justice is also advocating for a number of specific reforms. For instance, it has demanded that racial information on all traffic stops, including those that result in a ticket or an arrest, be collected as part of statewide public data (so far, only racial data on non-ticketed/cited, non-arrest stops is collected). Simple Justice has also proposed reform of the grand jury process in cases of police shootings of civilians, by arguing for opening up jury selection to the entire state of South Carolina in order to reduce local bias in deciding such cases.

But even the reforms that Simple Justice is already pushing for may not go far enough. The shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager in April 2015 was a fresh reminder of the reality that African Americans can still be killed at a routine stop by a police officer, and that the issue won’t be resolved simply by calling for all police officers to wear body cameras (although such a bill is currently moving through the South Carolina statehouse). To succeed in the South, Black Lives Matter will have to go beyond being a “new” civil rights movement and strive to address the complex morass of historic and contemporary problems—an economy that relies on too many low-wage jobs, a largely hamstrung union presence, shameful rates of education and graduation for both black and white citizens, the “Juan Crow” backlash against immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and heightened economic and social discrimination against women and LGBTQ communities—that have shaped the lives not just of African Americans in the region, but of most Southerners. Without including these basic economic, health, education, and social issues within its struggle for racial justice in South Carolina and across the nation, Black Lives Matter risks winning only temporary gains.

Linking its concerns to other issues and other movements, such as the Fight for $15 campaign, will be essential for sustaining its own momentum as well as channeling it toward other pressing issues in the state, of which there are many. As a right-to-work state, South Carolina currently offers only limited space for union activism. Following the example of the NAACP in North Carolina, Black Lives Matter in South Carolina must fight Governor Nikki Haley’s rejection of Medicaid funding in the state. Activists from Simple Justice and the South Carolina Progressive Network have already begun to challenge the state’s version of “Stand Your Ground” laws. Others are connecting what happened in Ferguson to American military intervention abroad by questioning the purchase of heavy military equipment by police and sheriffs’ departments in Ferguson and across South Carolina. It will also be important for Black Lives Matter activists to work with other groups such as the numerous historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the state (like Benedict College and Allen University in Columbia, or South Carolina State University in Orangeburg), which will mean reaching out to energized student populations and bringing much-needed attention to the funding issues that plague HBCUs across the nation.

Black Lives Matter must surely pick up the pieces of older movements—civil rights, Black Power, the Poor People’s Campaign—that once swept through the South in the 1960s and ’70s. But it must also continue the slow work of allying with other campaigns, of keeping the long view of the movement in sight. Linking racial justice and the fate of African Americans with those around them will be crucial to its future.

Robert Greene is a PhD student at the University of South Carolina, and a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.