Speakers at South Carolina’s biggest annual civil rights rally called on African-Americans to become more involved in fighting for economic and social justice, saying roadblocks still remain for African-Americans despite the progress of the last 50 years.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he does not earn enough money to buy a hamburger or a cup of coffee?” U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, repeating a Martin Luther King quote, told a crowd of several thousand on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia Monday.
Perez was the keynote speaker for the NAACP’s annual “King Day at the Dome.” The civil rights organization has hosted the event at the state Capitol every year since 2000. His previous job as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. That agency challenged South Carolina’s Voter ID law in 2011 and its immigration law that same year.
In the immigration lawsuit, a judge ended up striking down many of the law’s more controversial sections. But the court ruled police could check the immigration background of a person stopped for a traffic violation if there was reasonable suspicion that driver was in the country illegally. A federal judge sided with South Carolina on the voter ID law, but only after state officials clarified that voters who did not have a photo identification could still cast a provisional ballot.
Most of Perez’s comments dealt with fighting for better pay, which he said MLK would have wanted. “We cannot settle for economic inequality, for gaps,” he told the crowd. “Zip codes should never determine destiny in this country. But, all too frequently, too many communities are left behind. And that’s not the nation that Dr. King dreamed about.”
South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph said the 2011 voter ID law, struggles in heavily-black school districts, and the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds are symbols that equality has a long way to go.
Randolph also referenced the recent protests at Clemson over the school’s landmark Tillman Hall, named after former Gov. Ben Tillman. Tillman is a polarizing figure in late 19th-Century South Carolina history. He helped create Clemson University and tried to limit corporate money in elections, but he was also an unapologetic white supremacist accused of participating in lynch mobs before becoming governor.
The state NAACP leader noted a Tillman statue located prominently in the front of the Statehouse. “I don’t talk too much about moving it, if they’d just put the truth on it. Tell them that he was a killer of people and human beings. Tell them that he was part of a lynch mob… Tell the truth about Ben ‘Pitchfork’ Tillman.”
National NAACP President Cornell Brooks, a Georgetown native, called for the end of racial profiling by law enforcement. Brooks said King and Rosa Parks would be considered “thugs” due to their Civil Rights-era arrest records, “by the twisted logic of America today.”
He also repeated what has become an annual refrain at the rally — the removal of the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse grounds. “That flag symbolically flew every time every mother and father who marched and protested and stood up for freedom were beaten down… That flag symbolically flew. It must come down.”