COLUMBIA — President Barack Obama's inauguration was the highlight Monday of a subdued Martin Luther King Day rally at the South Carolina Statehouse.
The rally had one of the lowest turnouts since it began in 2000, in no small part because the nation's first black president was taking his oath of office for the second time about 400 miles away. Rally organizers set up a large TV screen to show the inauguration, and one of the biggest cheers of the day came after the president was sworn in again.
After years of focusing on traditional civil rights themes like voting rights or removing the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, the South Carolina NAACP focused on mental health for this year's rally.
Yes, mental health matters, even in a state that makes no sense, said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The rally was again held on the front lawn of the capitol, where a Confederate flag flies on a pole beside a monument to soldiers who died fighting for the South in the Civil War.
The first MLK Day rally by the NAACP in South Carolina was held in 2000, when tens of thousands of people came to the Statehouse to call for the Confederate flag to come down from the capitol dome. The NAACP was against the compromise that moved the flag from the dome to its current place by the monument.
And organizers have never left the flag out of their remarks. North Carolina NAACP President William Barber again had the main speech calling for the removal of the flag.
Nobody gave us the right to vote. We died for it. We bled for it. We suffered for it. To hell with that flag, Barber said, gesturing to the Confederate flag flying in front of him. We're under the American flag now.
But most speakers called for better mental health care, pointing out how hard it is to strive for the equality King dreamed of in a society where people who need help for mental illness are turned away. Richland County Probate Judge Amy McCulloch told the crowd how 73 percent of the people who go through the county's new mental health court, which focuses on treatment, have gone at least a year without committing another crime or being recommitted because of a severe, untreated mental illness.
Other speakers called for the Legislature to ignore Gov. Nikki Haley and implement an expansion of Medicaid as called for in the federal health care law, saying it would greatly expand mental health treatment options like medicine and therapy for people suffering from mental illness, who often can't hold jobs long enough to qualify for private health care.
Tens of thousands of people a year commit suicide because of mental illness and that problem is virtually ignored when compared to illnesses like cancer, said Bill Lindsey, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
If we had an airliner go down every day with 100 people on board there would be an uproar, Lindsey said. But that many deaths a day by suicide barely gets mentioned.
Jelin Cunningham was at her 11th MLK Day rally. The 15-year-old said her mother and her grandmother take her every year and at each rally she gets more out of it.
This year I realize that I can change the world, said Cunningham, who watched the rally while standing on the base of the Confederate soldiers' monument. And I have a responsibility to make sure I change my community for the better.