When you grow up in South Carolina, you get used to other folks chuckling over the backwards – and backwoods – stuff that goes on there.
We gave the world Mark Sanford and “hiking the Appalachian trail.” Joe “You lie!” Wilson, the congressman who in 2009 showed President Obama what fine manners we have. And the Miss Teen USA pageant contestant whose syntax mangling, deer-meets-headlights response to a simple geography question spawned a thousand jokes about the S.C. education system.
At least we’re not Mississippi, we say to ourselves, praying we aren’t the only ones who see a distinction.
I stayed up late Wednesday night, tracking the debate in the S.C. House, wondering if the representatives would follow the Senate’s lead and finally vote to take down the Confederate battle flag on the statehouse grounds.
I had remained fairly pessimistic, even after the Senate’s vote. The Confederate battle flag, and more specifically the white Southern “good ol’ boy” mentality it symbolizes, runs as deep in the Palmetto State as the roots of those gnarled old moss-draped oaks that dot the Lowcountry.
It was so embedded in the DNA of the region that, growing up, I subconsciously thought that was what all of America was like, not just South Carolina.
When I wanted to play baseball as a kid, for instance, there was no Little League. We played Dixie Youth baseball, complete with caps adorned with little Confederate battle flags. (Must be the flag of baseball, I figured, not realizing Dixie Youth first sprang up in opposition to integrated Little League teams).
My favorite barbecue sauce? Maurice Bessinger’s mustard-based Piggie Park. (I had no idea, until adulthood, that the guy was a notoriously unreconstructed racist who, even as late as 2000, distributed pro-slavery tracts and flew a giant Confederate flag at his West Columbia restaurant).
As Wednesday night dragged into Thursday morning, there still had been no vote to take the flag down. I started preparing myself for the likelihood that South Carolina would satisfy the stereotype once again.
I had been wise to temper my enthusiasm, I thought. I know my state.
But then Jenny Horne, a Republican and a lawyer from Summerville, S.C., gave an impassioned speech about how most South Carolinians, in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, want the divisive flag off the statehouse grounds.
Through angry tears, she implored her colleagues not to insult the victims’ memories. She said she’s a descendant of Jefferson Davis, but declared that her personal history isn’t more important than healing the state’s psychological wound.
It was the kind of homespun common sense my mother might have applied. You don’t insist on keeping something you want if it’s something that can help hurting neighbors in need.
Horne, at that moment, personified the South Carolina I remember best. A place where that small-town sense of community prevails, where everybody knows somebody else’s cousin’s nephew’s aunt’s sister. A place where it’s still bad form to pass an elderly stranger on the street without saying “Good afternoon” or “Good evening,” or at least nodding in respect.
A place where everything comes down to caring for your neighbors – even politics.
I am proud of my home state today. No asterisk necessary.