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December 16, 2010

Black veterans: We fought for right to celebrate secession - wrong or right

There will be gowns and tuxedos and cocktails in Charleston on Monday night for the Sons of Confederate Veterans Secession Ball. Local veterans and NAACP leaders react.

There will be gowns and tuxedos and cocktails in Charleston on Monday night.

A gala - as it is called by the organizers - to commemorate what these people think is worthy of a ball with cut glass decanters and soft music.


The Sons of Confederate Veterans Secession Ball is to celebrate South Carolina's seceding from the United States of America 150 years ago.

That secession came just before as many as 700,000 people died from gunshots and cannonballs blowing off their legs, as so many Southern states led by South Carolina fought to keep slavery.

They lost. The hundreds of thousands of poor white Southerners who did not own slaves that died because Southern landowners loved free slave labor, sure lost, too.

Death in that war knew no region. Hundreds of thousands of whites fighting against slavery died, too, just as horribly, from gaping holes in faces and chests, and slowly as their limbs fell off from gangrene.

For some reason, some people in South Carolina feel a need to celebrate this.

Johnnie Roseborough will not be among them.

Roseborough, 85, fought for the United States in World War II in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge. He was honored for his courage to free Europe from the racism of the Nazis - who claimed that some races were superior to others.

He returned home to Rock Hill after the war to find a South Carolina where, legally, some races were considered better than others.

Roseborough, of the race believed by so many to be inferior, soldiered on in life. He has soldiered on as segregation fell to its death, finally, and he had a family that grew.

Without hesitation, Roseborough will tell you he fought for the right of people to gather - like those who will make small talk while commemorating secession that led to the death of so many people in the Civil War.

"I have done in my life many things I had to do," said Roseborough. "I did them because I love my country. I wear my World War II veteran cap every day. People thank me - most of them are white. My country is America.

"I don't have to like what they do at that event - but they can do it."

Grady Meeks Jr. will not be celebrating in Charleston - nor will he be part of the NAACP protest outside the event.

Meeks did not protest when he was drafted to go to Vietnam from a segregated Rock Hill in the late 1960s. He did not protest when some white Southerners flew a Confederate battle flag in Vietnam - but he sure fought side-by-side with them and nobody flew any rebel flags as the wounded were evacuated.

Meeks did not protest when he was wounded and hoped to live.

"I am a veteran," Meeks said. "I respect all veterans - even those in the Civil War that fought on the wrong side of slavery.

"I don't agree with what the South had them fighting for. But this is America. I am an American. They have the freedom of speech. Freedom of expression."

Melvin Poole, another veteran who happens to be president of the Rock Hill branch of the NAACP, will be in Charleston marching against the ball that will celebrate those who fought to preserve slavery.

This in a state where the Confederate flag still flies in front of the Statehouse, reminding every black and white person of this state's slave past - and its inability to put that past behind it.

"What this group is doing is offensive," Poole said. "They can do it. That doesn't mean they should do it."

What ties these men together is they belong to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3746 in Rock Hill.

The post was created in 1938, because white veterans groups would not allow blacks to join, no matter what heroism in wartime the black soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen had brought forth.

Post 3746 itself has never been segregated. Anybody can join.

On Friday night, there will be a dance to raise money for this VFW post to put up a new building in the next few years. There will be dancing, music and people celebrating the heroism of soldiers who were called to wars and never flinched.

Johnnie Roseborough hopes to be there. At 85, his dancing days are over - but his days as an American are not.

Grady Meeks will be there at age 62, a man who got home from Vietnam in 1970 and had to choose, in his words, "between joining the Black Panthers and joining the rest of America and taking care of my family."

Meeks has spent 40 years growing, ever thicker, a thick skin.

He says what's planned Monday night in Charleston "doesn't bother me."

"I worked in textiles all my life, and this guy once at work wore a rebel flag cap, and I talked to him about why I didn't like it," Meeks said. "You know what? He took that cap off.

"People can change in America."

Some people can.

Some itching to wear tie and tails to commemorate the deaths of so many in a war fought over slavery, apparently, refuse to change.

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