As South Carolina readies to vote, tensions ferment
NORTH CHARLESTON, United States – Two days before South Carolina's Republican primary, and 8 months after the incomprehensible murder of black churchgoers in Charleston, racial tensions are simmering despite presidential candidates' proclamations that the state has emerged gracefully from tragedy.
The first presidential nomination vote in the US South was supposed to showcase the region's dynamism, religious conviction, resilience in the face of recent horror and the resulting effort to neutralize a symbol long seen by many as fueling hate: the Confederate battle flag.
Instead, say South Carolinians on both sides of the racial and political divides, the pressure, misunderstanding, and hostility have only hardened ahead of the primary.
"The hearts of the people have not changed," said Anthony Scott, whose brother Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a white officer in North Charleston in April in a police brutality case that shocked the nation.
And, he told AFP, Republican candidates blanketing South Carolina are largely ignoring black communities, seeking instead to curry favor with the traditional base in a state that has voted Republican in the last 9 presidential elections.
"I don't see any effort being made," Scott said of the Republicans.
Frontrunner Donald Trump and his nearest rival Ted Cruz both held rallies on Tuesday in which few, if any, African American supporters were in attendance.
In a series of interviews across South Carolina, residents expressed concern that Republicans were courting white voters, while Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who hold their primary one week later, were competing tooth and nail for black support.
Fully 55% of South Carolina's Democratic voters in 2008 were black, according to exit polls.
While the state is 28% black, it has only one African American, a Democrat, in its 7-member delegation in the US House of Representatives, and one black Republican in the Senate.
The Confederate flag's removal from statehouse grounds by Republican Governor Nikki Haley in July, just weeks after a young man entered a black church and killed 9 people during an evening Bible study, was seen by some as a watershed moment for race relations.
Violent protests that have rocked other American cities after racially-tinged incidents failed to materialize in South Carolina, a state with a strong faith-based and evangelical tradition.
"Why didn't it happen here?" candidate Senator Marco Rubio rhetorically asked a townhall meeting in Beaufort on Tuesday.
"Because at the center of this state is the church. When these horrible tragedies happened, especially at the Mother Emanuel Church, it was the church that was at the center of the state's response."
Rubio also referenced the timely order to remove the controversial flag by Haley, who has since endorsed Rubio for the Republican nomination.
Other candidates have praised Haley's actions too, including Jeb Bush.
But her order, which earned praise from President Barack Obama, has not soothed all souls.
"It's made some folks even more bitter," said Scott.
Among them is Rollis Smith, a senior member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which bills itself as a Civil War heritage preservation society with some 3,500 members in South Carolina.
"It hurt me deeply," Smith, speaking at a Confederate museum in Greenville in the conservative upstate northwest, said of the flag's removal.
"I think not only their heritage, but the southern heritage and Christian values are under assault."
The first shots in the 1861-1865 Civil War were fired in South Carolina, which nourishes America's culture of remembrance regarding the war between the states.
While Smith said he abhors the Charleston shooting widely described as a racist hate crime, he insisted that "the racial tension exists because it's being forced upon us by outsiders coming into the South that are stirring up trouble."
The pastor of an African-American church disagreed.
"The outside sees South Carolina as it is, and those of us here for some time have just become complacent," countered Reverend Isaac Holt of the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
He was presiding over a Wednesday night service where many of the more than 200 congregants were dancing and convulsing in the aisles as singers belted out gospel numbers.
Holt said that Haley, who attended the funerals for all 9 Emanuel AME church victims, was forever changed by the experience, but that others are looking the other way.
"We just simply prefer to ignore it than doing the hard things of sitting down and talking about it and working it out," Holt said.
Politics, he added, is what is dividing Americans.
"And politics is run by a few wealthy people – Democrats and Republicans – that are totally disengaged from everyday life of blacks and whites," Holt said.
Smith insisted that Obama, not Confederate heritage activists, are to blame for the tense political climate.
"He tries to use race as his tool, but it seems to have destroyed more than it's healed," Smith said. – Michael Mathes, AFP / Rappler.com