His name is Willie McCleod, a 72-year-old black man, and the world says he is a hero.
The world is right.
And still, South Carolina – the state he loves and the state that will honor him Tuesday – still flies the Confederate flag prominently in front of the State House.
Earlier this year, his hometown of Rock Hill and America celebrated him and other members of the Friendship Nine, a group of young black men who protested segregation and the treatment of blacks as less than white in 1961. In January, a judge overturned convictions that sent McCleod and the others to jail for a month after their arrests for sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter.
It took only 54 years.
The man who vacated the conviction, Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III – a Rock Hill native like McCleod – said so loud and proud in that courtroom that the black men were arrested, convicted and sent to jail solely because they were black.
Hayes and the prosecutor, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, told the world in a nationally televised event that the state of South Carolina had been wrong when it prosecuted an 18-year-old McCleod.
On Tuesday, the General Assembly will honor the Friendship Nine with a resolution hailing their courage to fight segregation and bigotry.
Willie McCleod will walk right under that Confederate flag fluttering on a pole outside the State House to get inside where he will be called a hero.
“It is unbelievable, really, that this state still flies that flag,” McCleod said. “The South lost the Civil War. The flag was part of the South that fought that war to keep black people as slaves. They lost, but the flag still flies.”
The Nazi flag does not still fly in a shamed Germany, where the swastika stood for racial and religious hatred and left millions dead, McCleod said. But the Confederate flag flies in South Carolina – the state that first seceded from America and where the Civil War started – in an attempt to keep black people in chains after hundreds of years.
Blacks were treated as second class citizens and worse, despite being freed when the South was vanquished in the Civil War. White hate groups carried that Confederate flag to show they would not ever say blacks were equal. Segregation, unjust laws, killings, maimings – these are not just in movies. They all happened right here, for 100 years after freedom was won.
But when the civil rights movement started, the Confederate flag went mainstream.
In 1961, the protesters from Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College – McCleod, David Williamson Jr., Clarence Graham, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Robert McCullough, John Gaines, James Wells, Mack Workman and Thomas Gaither, plus a 10th protester named Charles Taylor who did not stay in jail – sat down and were arrested.
Their protest reinvigorated a flagging civil rights protest in the South.
What did South Carolina do?
The all-white Legislature created a “segregation” committee to try to make sure that integration never happened here. In 1962, that Confederate flag – the very symbol of a war fought by the South to keep blacks as slaves, then was used by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups – went up on top of the State House.
Placing that flag in such a prominent place was a defiant middle finger from South Carolina to blacks and to the rest of America, saying that South Carolina would not integrate. The flag was a symbol that South Carolina does not listen to Yankee agitators, black civil rights protesters – or anybody else.
In 2000, the Legislature finally took the flag down from the dome. Its new home: Flying on the grounds near the front doors, still for all to see.
Some politicians said this was a compromise.
Others see this as what it is: nonsense. The flag, flying under color of government authority, is still a middle finger aimed squarely at every black person in South Carolina and the world.
It should be an embarrassment to every person of every color. You don’t have to be black to know that racism is wrong.
So on Tuesday, McCleod and the other great men of the Friendship Nine will wear suits and hear proclamations and see a standing ovation from a still mostly-white Legislature. He will accept.
On his way into and out of the state’s most symbolic building, McCleod will pass under that reminder that this state – his state – will never let a black man forget he is black.
“I have to walk right past the Confederate flag to get honored for saying we all are equal,” he said. “Imagine that.”
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org