Published on Monday, April 3, 2000 in the Charleston (SC) Post & Courier
'Get In Step':
Over Six Hundred Begin 4-Day March Against Confederate Flag In South Carolina
by Erik Neely
As though church walls had disappeared and left a congregation blanketing two blocks of Calhoun Street, about 600 people, some of them singing spirituals and wearing Sunday suits, started the first leg of a 120-mile protest march to Columbia. About one-third of the marchers who urged state legislators to move the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome were black. Recent polls show most South Carolinians want the flag relocated.
"The failure of the legislature to act potentially damages the heritage and reputation of our state," said march leader and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who wore a bulletproof vest because, he said, he received a specific death threat last week.
The protest march, which began in Marion Square and traveled about 12 miles up Rivers Avenue into Goose Creek by evening, drew three lone opponents. They included a College of Charleston student who marched all day carrying a six-foot Rebel flag and said he would return for the march's end Thursday.
Pro-flag groups also have scheduled a Statehouse rally that day.
The sole bump in the day's walk came when Riley caught himself referring to minister and state Sen. McKinley Washington, D-Ravenel, as "Sen. McConnell," a staunch flag supporter who was not in attendance.
Vans and buses ferried people to the march at their convenience, and about 75 walkers remained at the day's end. But hundreds more cheered from Charleston sidewalks, many from halted autos as walkers wound past.
"I admire you," called 79-year-old Hilda Hutchinson-Jefferson, a former member of City Council, who drove her silver Buick Century beside the walkers all day, periodically pulling ahead to applaud the entire procession from an intersection.
Sunday morning, she put her cat Princess in a kennel, put on her sage green suit and prepared to follow the march by car to Columbia.
Walkers can expect her dressed to the nines each day.
"I won't wear pants. I don't wear those tennis things," she said, gesturing to her sage green spiked heels.
Gary Eichelberger, visiting from Virginia when he found out the march was scheduled, carried a South Carolina flag near the front of the crowd.
As an undergraduate five years ago, Eichelberger joined the fraternity of Robert E. Lee, Kappa Alpha. But he said he can value Confederate ideals and still see bringing down the flag as "a Christian act."
"What the history of Lee in part tells us is that there's a great opportunity for us to overcome sins of the past and unify," he said.
At Marion Square, six housekeepers, all women and all black, stood with their white, male managers from the Francis Marion Hotel as the march began.
"They told us if we wanted to we could stop working and come," housekeeper Danyelle Thompson said.
Walter Rhett, a member of Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers, sang Civil Rights standards and Lowcountry spirituals from a podium in the park.
First came "We Shall Overcome," then "Highway to Heaven," then "Father, Lend Me Your Walking Shoes."
"This is for changing hearts," he said of the march to remove the flag. "(In the 1960s), we addressed the concrete things - like votes and food and jobs. Now we're addressing the needs of the human heart."
Hundreds of regular folks were joined by politicians like Riley, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, Sen. Washington, former Gov. John C. West, former Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore, Congressman James E. Clyburn, NAACP state branches president the Rev. James Gallman and authors Pat Conroy and Edward Ball.
Across from the podium in Marion Square, a man in glasses and a bow tie embroidered with Rebel flags scaled a monument of states rights advocate U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun.
The Citadel graduate student, who would not identify himself, obeyed a Charleston police officer who asked him to come down.
"Now nobody will see me," he complained as he climbed down. "That's what you want, isn't it."
"We've seen you for 400 years," a man nearby yelled.
Mike Webb, a student who carried a Confederate flag during the entire march, weathered steady arguments from other walkers.
Webb asked one angry woman if his flag had ever hurt her, and if he didn't have a right to carry it down the street.
"That flag is right where it's supposed to be," said G. Ellen Carr. "It's in your hand walking down the street. Its place is not over the state Capitol."
For updates on the march, visit http://www.getinstep.com.
Copyright © 2000 Charleston.Net