If just about anyone else had given the speech that Curwood Chappell made Tuesday to the Rock Hill NAACP, astonishment would surely have been a common reaction.
But after watching him operate over nearly two decades in public office, audiences from Lesslie to Hickory Grove have learned to expect the unexpected when Chappell gets behind a microphone.
And so it was at the annual Emancipation Proclamation program, where Chappell, 78, declared that the ACLU is a Communist organization out to destroy the country, children who bring the Bible to some schools are committing felonies and the separation of church and state is not a principle spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
"I'm up front," the York County Councilman told about 100 people gathered at the Freedom Center in downtown. "I'll hang it all out on the clothes line for the voters and citizens of York County to see. I get in trouble about that sometimes. I ain't in jail yet."
A softer side
But focusing entirely on a few incendiary comments doesn't do justice to the breadth of Chappell's 40-minute keynote address. At many points, he showed a softer, reflective side, and called the invitation to speak "probably one of the greatest honors I've ever had."
Chappell fought back tears as he described landing his airplane at the same strip in Alabama where the Tuskegee Airmen became the first black military aviators during World War II.
"I broke out in a sweat," he recalled. "I got chills down my back that I would have the honor to land at the same field they trained on."
Later, Chappell reeled off a list of famous black Americans, urging listeners to summon the same courage that their elders showed during times of turmoil. "These are all your people I'm calling out," he said, mentioning names such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.
He recalled how he and his seven brothers were raised by a father who ran cotton gins for a living and always taught his children to stick up for the little man because "the big man got enough protection already."
Before closing, he offered to personally pay the start-up costs if the Freedom Center would start a Boy Scouts chapter.
Choice sparks criticism
Chappell's time at the podium started and ended with a standing ovation, but his appearance has also generated considerable controversy since it was announced last week.
Herb Crump, president of the Rock Hill chapter, acknowledged that some members refused to attend because they were upset over the choice of speaker, who has been criticized for making insensitive and offensive remarks.
Chappell once referred to his African-American constituents as "my black people," and nine years ago accused two black Rock Hill City Council members, Winston Searles and Osbey Roddey, of bowing to pressure from the white majority in a debate over plans to redevelop Cherry Road.
The unhappiness marks the latest sign of a rift between Crump, 37, and some older NAACP members who came of age long before his arrival in Rock Hill. Last June, Crump invited belly dancers to perform at the annual Freedom Fund dinner, prompting a few attendees to walk out after becoming uncomfortable.
"We thought that was inappropriate," said Dub Massey, an NAACP life member. "Perhaps it's (Tuesday) going to be labeled the same way."
In defending the choice, Crump issued a rebuke to his critics and promised more surprises over the coming year. Keeping the organization relevant requires outside-the-box thinking, he said, not the same practices the old-guard is used to.
"Call me crazy, but when it's all over, somebody's gonna say that crazy bald-headed boy made a difference," Crump told the audience.
Admirers might say the same thing about Chappell, who ended his speech Tuesday in much the same way he has concluded countless others over the years.
"I may not have finished," he said. "But I think it's time for me to stop."