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South Carolina's racist history

The massacre by a young white man, according to police, of nine African Americans last week at a Charleston church Bible study has drawn the nation's attention to lingering racial hatred in America. If there is a more appropriate place to draw that attention than South Carolina, I don't know it.

In its perpetual resistance to the Union — which ultimately stood down slavery, racism's most dehumanizing form — and its racist legacies including segregation, the Palmetto State has had few peers. No state mounted greater opposition to the Republic for which we stand, nor resisted federal power and legitimacy so ardently, nor fought as vigorously on behalf of the establishment, continuation and justification of slavery in America than South Carolina.

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That's a bold claim to defend. But in a chapter I published last year about South Carolina's long, sordid history of resisting the American consensus (see "Nation Within a Nation: The American South and the Federal Government," University Press of Florida), I make exactly that case.

In deference to demands by South Carolina slaveholders, Thomas Jefferson removed condemnation of slavery from the Declaration of Independence, staining forever via this omission the first of America's two core documents. As for the nation's other core document, the Constitution legalized slavery and the continued importation of slaves until 1808 because South Carolina and other slave states extracted these conditions in exchange for joining the new union—and then immediately began trying to renege on that bargain.

John Calhoun, the state's most prominent 19th-century politician, divined the theory of nullification — the idea that states can simply ignore federal edicts and court rulings with which they disagree — as a thinly-veiled but clever legal justification for state autonomy in service to the perpetuation of state-sanctioned terrorism of millions of enslaved blacks.

Everybody knows the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Ft. Sumter, and many recall that South Carolina was the first to secede. But before that, in November 1860, the first formal call to secede and form what became the Confederacy was issued on what's known as Secession Hill in Abbeville, a small town in the western part of South Carolina. So fervent was South Carolina's devotion to slavery that the state actually threatened to secede from the Confederacy when the other 10 Confederate states refused to join South Carolina's call to begin importing slaves more than a half-century after the Constitution's original, 1808 deadline.

Following the Civil War, South Carolina was one of many states that used the 13th Amendment's oft-forgotten "except for punishment of a crime" clause to perpetuate slavery for decades through the nefarious convict lease system. South Carolina's Wade Hampton and his infamous "red shirts" — forerunner to the Ku Klux Klan — used domestic terrorism to subjugate the freed slaves who couldn't be tossed into prisons.

Twentieth-century South Carolina gave the country Strom Thurmond, a proud segregationist and believer in white superiority despite having fathered a child with a black teenage family servant. His 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign remains the great electoral eyesore of post-war America.

The following decade, South Carolina's Clarendon County was the original, segregation-defending litigant in the bundle of cases generally associated with Topeka, Kan., thanks to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling. And get this: Well into the 20th century, many white South Carolinians refused to celebrate the 4th of July, preferring instead to recognize Confederate Memorial Day.

This week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham called for their state to remove the Confederate flag that flies on the capitol complex in Columbia. That flag represents a defense of slavery before and after the Revolutionary era, and before, during and even after the Civil War that supposedly created racial equality. Its resilient display validates the state's treasonous acts against the Republic in service to humanity's most odious practice. Good riddance.

But those who think its removal is a panacea, or who conveniently characterize the Charleston church slaughter as the senseless act of some misguided loner, miss the point. We can make sense of it, and the alleged shooter is not alone, because a long and sordid history precedes him.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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