Andrew Dys

Convention celebrating the Confederacy coming to York Tech campus

Seanna Adcox - AP
Seanna Adcox - AP

Hundreds of Confederate flags will be on display at York Technical College early next year – despite the potential for controversy and even protests a year after the flag was dumped from the South Carolina statehouse – as the school hosts the annual South Carolina convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans not only use the Confederate flag in their materials, logos and banners, the group refuses to acknowledge that the Civil War was fought over the South wanting to keep blacks in slavery. The group opposed all efforts to take down the flag in South Carolina.

Student enrollment figures at York Technical College for the decade leading up to this year show generally the student body of more than 5,000 students is about one-quarter black each year.

But until The Herald told top administrators at the school that its Baxter Hood Center had contracted with the group to host the convention, administration officials didn’t even know that their conference center had inked a deal to host the convention in March.

More, some area leaders say Rock Hill and York County hosting a convention for a group that flies such a divisive and inflammatory flag could damage the image of the area. Rock Hill has an official motto: “No Room for Racism” and honors civil rights protesters in its road signs. In 2015 Rock Hill reversed convictions of Friendship Nine protesters from 1961 in an event that was national news.

“With all the unrest going on in this country, it would not be a good look for York Tech or Rock Hill and York County,” said William “Bump” Roddey, a York Tech alumnus who is the only black member of York County Council. “We have come a long way in this area, and this re-inflames what we are trying to get past.”

School officials have determined that the Sons of Confederate Veterans – which believes that the Southern cause in the Civil War was both just and proper – has a first amendment right to assemble. The Hood center is owned and operated by the college, a state run school supported by taxpayers.

“We are aware of their emblem as potentially controversial, but we are apolitical,” said Melanie Jones, vice-president for college advancement at York Tech.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans has a legitimate right to lease the space for the convention March 17 and March 18, Jones said. Other groups, such as the NAACP and political candidates, have previously leased space at the Hood center.

However, those groups do not arrive with a phalanx of Confederate flags in tow.

The school, after being told of the event booking, said it has reviewed the contract and with a Friday afternoon and Saturday function in March, and does not see any disruption of the campus or students going to school by the event, Jones said. The school must balance its core mission of serving students with any event on campus, but for this event, York Tech “does not see a situation where that balance is off-balance,” Jones said.

The Confederate flag has been a state and national controversy for decades. For more than 15 years, the NCAA and ACC banned sports events after the NAACP urged a boycott over South Carolina flying the Confederate flag.

South Carolina in 2015 took down the same Confederate battle flag that the Sons of Confederate Veterans use in all their materials and as part of their logo. That was done by legislators, after a push by Gov. Nikki Haley, after nine blacks were murdered at a Charleston church. The suspect is a white supremacist and Confederate flag supporter who wanted to start a race war.

Roddey, the York County Council member, said tuition and fees from students and tax dollars from the people of York County and South Carolina support York Tech.

“This is not the image we want in York County,” Roddey said.

For millions of Americans, the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and racism. More, it is generally accepted – except by Confederate heritage groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and hate groups that also fly the Confederate flag – that the war was fought because the Southern states wanted to maintain and expand the slavery of blacks and rejected the authority of the federal government to prohit slavery.

It is clear that private individuals and groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have every right to fly the Confederate flag. But the March 2017 convention will be on a campus of a public school supported by tax dollars, Roddey said, and the public and student body are sure to see the flags that many find offensive.

Just last month, a federal judge in a Mississippi flag dispute wrote that the Confederate flag is an “emblem of slavery, lynchings, pain and white supremacy.” More, the judge wrote that not just blacks are appalled by the Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina taking down the Confederate flag from its Statehouse was a major news event all over the world – and yet taking down the flag was excoriated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On its website, the Sons of Confederate Veterans say of the Confederate flag in South Carolina: “One comes down, many go up.”

Yet the Sons of Confederate Veterans say there is no concern over their annual meeting – despite there being no doubt that the Confederate flag is among the most controversial symbols in America – if not the most divisive. The convention includes Confederate flag backdrops, sales of Confederate flag items, and its participants carry the flags. More, the group is not open to the public – only descendants of Confederate soldiers are eligible for membership.

After the Charleston killings in June 2015 – but before the state legislature and governor approved taking down the Statehouse Confederate flag – the Sons of Confederate Veterans denounced the killings at a news conference hastily assembled under the Confederate flag, but continued to support the flag and fought the bill that took it down. The group also has had skirmishes with anti-flag groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other states after people opposed the flag.

Bucky Sutton, commander of the Micah Jenkins camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans based in Rock Hill and host for the state convention, said that there is no concern about potential protests or anything else, and that the group is about celebrating the heritage of its members. Sutton said that “I am not ashamed” of his heritage of 44 Confederate soldiers that promotes the Confederacy and denies the war as being about slavery.

Sutton conceded that the Confederate flag is controversial but said “there is controversy in almost anything. Black Lives matter is controversial,” Sutton said.

More, Sutton said he is “quite puzzled” why anyone would even bring up any potential problems with the group renting the space. The group believes its heritage is under siege from those who would rewrite history – despite overwhelming scholarship that refutes the groups contention that the war was not about slavery. The group has 3,000 members statewide but it remains unclear how many will attend in March.

The S.C. Board for Technical College Education, which provides oversight for the state’s 16 technical schools, has not faced any such situation before where a group that espouses the controversial Confederate flag rents space for an event, said Kelly Steinhilper, spokesperson for the state board. The local colleges have “autonomy” to handle their own affairs such as hosting events, Steinhilper said, and there “is no policy” at the state level concerning hosting a group that uses as its banner and logo a symbol that so many South Carolinians find offensive.

Roddey, the York Tech alum and councilman, said no one should be surprised if there are protests against the event.

The campus sits in the city of Rock Hill, but Rock Hill police have not yet received any request for extra security, a department spokesman said.