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Struggle for equality not over in the South

Published May 18, 2003

Three news stories last week came as reminders that the South has not yet broken free from the bonds of race: White-only school proms were held in two rural counties in Georgia; more blacks than whites are prosecuted under an antilynching law in South Carolina; and two former Southern governors - one a Democrat and the other a Republican - were recognized for their political courage in trying to haul down the Confederate battle flag in their states. Voters tossed them out of office.

These stories are not an indictment of an entire region or of all Southerners. They are the exceptions, not the rule. At most schools, proms are integrated. In most states, the Confederate flag is not an issue. There has been much progress in race relations since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights army overcame legal segregation in the South. But these stories remind us that the struggle for racial equality is not behind us and that race still matters in the New South and probably always will.

I find it hard to believe that, in 2003, a few high school seniors in Georgia would hold private proms that exclude their black classmates, or that their parents and local school officials would condone such racism. According to one report, parents of students at Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., paid for a private, whites-only prom for their children. I'm sure they don't see why anyone should object. After all, it's just a private party among friends, all of whom happen to be white. But what kind of message does it send to their children? That separation of the races in some cases is a Southern tradition worth preserving?

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that South Carolina's antilynching law, enacted in 1951 to end vigilante violence against blacks, "has borne strange fruit."

An AP analysis of the cases prosecuted under the law, which defines lynching as any act of violence by two or more people against another, "blacks are most often the ones charged with lynching . . . Though they make up just 30 percent of the state's population, blacks account for 63 percent of the lynching charges."

South Carolina should remove - at least in the name of sensitivity - the word "lynching" from this law. For most people, the word conjures up horrific images of white mobs dragging black men from their homes and hanging them from trees, or burning them to death on a stack of wood. Lynchings, motivated by raw racial hatred, were unspeakable in their brutality. They are not the moral equivalent of today's violent crimes.

So, in these times of subtle bigotry, who among Southern political leaders speak for Southerners who want to let go of the past and its divisive symbols? There are a few such men, and two of them were in Boston last week to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award - former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, and former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Republican. Both lost their re-election bids because they had the political courage to say, as Barnes did, the battle flag of the Old Confederacy doesn't belong on Georgia's state flag or, in Beasely's case, atop the South Carolina Capitol.

"The debate you hear in the South today is not about whether segregation is right, or whether African-Americans should vote," Barnes said in his Boston remarks. "That would be impolite. Bigotry is a little more subtle these days. It's done in a more polite way. But it's still there."

For his stand against polite bigotry, Barnes became the first Democratic governor in Georgia to lose his office to a Republican in 130 years. "I don't think my decision required extraordinary courage," said Barnes. "There are worse things than losing an election. It is worse to lose our moral bearings. It is worse to run from a tough issue. It is worse to succumb to fear."

Another Georgian, Dan Ponder, a former state legislator, also received a JFK Profile in Courage Award for his role in passing Georgia's first hate-crime law. The legislation appeared doomed until Ponder, a Hardees restaurant chain executive, rose to unburden himself of something that happened long ago in his youth and has tormented him since. He spoke of a young black woman, Mary Ward, who cared for him and loved him from the day he was born. And he loved her. Then one day, when he was 12 or 13, he turned his head away when she tried to kiss him, as she had always done, as he went out to play.

Ponder cannot forget her searing words as she looked into his eyes: "You didn't kiss me because I am black." He denied it, but at that moment, he knew it was true, that race had come between him and someone he loved. He told his fellow lawmakers: "I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward's love for me. I pledged to myself then and I repledged to myself the day I buried her that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent, and let hate and prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person's life, even if I didn't know them."

Roy Barnes. David Beasley. Dan Ponder. Three Southerners who did what they thought was right, not courageous.

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