Charleston's whites-only Civil War centennial 

P&C story doesn't get to the heart of 1961 civil rights drama

There is much more to the story about the Civil War's centennial than what the Post and Courier fit in a brief article in today's paper.

Here's an exert from the City Paper's award-winning 2008 cover story on early preparations for the sesquicentennial and the civil rights fight at the heart of the Civil War's 100th anniversary.

In a guidebook offering suggestions for commemorative events, the state called it "The Confederate War Centennial," because the "secession and the fight for independence were in no way a rebellion against civil authority."

Charleston's interest in the commemoration was slow to rise. In March 1959, as plans were developing in Columbia, Washington, and other areas, Charleston Chamber of Commerce Director Julian Metz noted the response in the city was cold and that the main problem was "apathy." E. Milloy Burton, director of the Charleston Museum, warned months later that Charleston "should put our best foot forward or the Civil War will be commemorated from a Northern point of view."

By the end of the year, local activities were coming together. Citadel cadets grew their sideburns out and practiced century-old maneuvers for the recreation of the Star of the West attack on Jan. 9, 1961. Churches were encouraged to include a centennial sermon and Confederate flags were said to have been flown from every Charleston theater and at Charleston High School. The 100th anniversary of Fort Sumter's opening salvo would include a Miss Confederate contest, a 15-float parade, grand balls, and a cast of about 1,000 for a Charleston pageant at the local football field.


The national and state-organized centennial commissions scheduled a collective assembly in Charleston during the Fort Sumter commemoration in April 1961. But it had scheduled the event at the Francis Marion Hotel, which did not allow black guests. New Jersey commission members told organizers that a black member of their state group, Madaline Williams, would be refused lodging at the hotel, but their concerns were ignored. They eventually called for a boycott of the meeting, and other states followed, including New York and Massachusetts.

The turmoil was seen as one of the first major civil rights hurdles for President John F. Kennedy. Calls for the hotel to make concessions for Williams, including those from the White House, were met with indignation from South Carolina and accusations that the New Jersey commission was playing politics with the event. Gov. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat and friend to the Kennedy family, said neither the president nor the governor can "dictate" whom a hotel had to serve.

The president eventually relocated the convention to the Charleston Navy Base, a desegregated federal facility. But commissioners from the Confederate states went ahead with the planned event at the Francis Marion, including a speech by Thurmond warning of "most perilous and difficult times" and arguing that civil rights supporters "cry for equality beyond reason." Charleston native and Philadelphia newspaper editor Ashley Halsey Jr. also offered up scathing remarks during speeches at both the Confederate and national meetings.

"Again, we have the same situation which pushed the great moderate majority of peace-loving Americans into Civil War," he said.

New Jersey Commissioner Donald Flamm told reporters later that Halsey's comments were "calculated to incite bitterness, to open old wounds, and, for good measure, to rub salt into the tortured flesh."

Halsey would later argue that his speech was "a reasoned attempt to show, through the example of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the inadvisability of trying to change the South by sudden, coercive pressures, whether political or military."

As the dust settled, nearly a week after the Fort Sumter reenactment and the commission assembly, the city of Charleston buried a 100-year time capsule in Washington Square with various Confederate knickknacks.

"With all of this, I am reasonably certain of one thing — and that is that man will always have differences of opinion," said Mayor J. Palmer Gaillard. "I know that all of you join me in the hopes that these differences will be settled without arms and then when the capsule is opened our country will still be united."


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