Groups show unity despite differences on issues: 'Far more in common than not'

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Two groups typically on opposite sides of issues involving the Confederate flag and monuments stood together for the second time in a week.

The South Carolina Secessionist Party and the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement say the state legislature failed to deliver on part of an agreement that removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia.

Shakem Amen Akhet, of the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement, said in meetings with South Carolina Secessionist Party Chairman James Bessenger, the two men have found "intersectionality" in their differing points of view. One of those is the compromise that was supposed to place the Confederate battle flag on the statehouse grounds into a museum.

"What has happened is that the lawmakers in South Carolina have reneged on that promise that was made to Bessenger and a lot of those who support the Confederate flag here in South Carolina," Akhet said.

Akhet and Bessenger said the legislature's failure to carry through on that agreement prompted the Secessionist Party to begin protests that involve waving the Confederate flag throughout the area.

"We started our flagging in a response to the museum not displaying our battle flag the way they promised," Bessenger said. He said his group would stop the flagging when the Confederate battle flag was displayed.

Akhet said the displays have upset people in various communities where they happen but says people who dislike the display should not be upset with demonstrators but rather with lawmakers.

"I know as a black person, I know how it feels to actually be reneged upon by legislative activity," Akhet said. "I totally understand the rage and the frustration that they are feeling by having a government system tell them that something was going to happen and it hasn't been done, yet."

Akhet called for the legislature keep their promise to put the flag in a museum.

"That is only right, and we shouldn't even be having this type of conversation, because when something is promised, then that means your word shall be bond, and their word has not been bond," Akhet said.

"So now South Carolina has written them a bad check, and that check has come back insufficient funds when they tried to cash it," Akhet said.

Both men said their groups made the decision to sit down and have conversations in response to the backlash that followed violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one woman dead and more than a dozen injured.

He said several rallies in the area have remained peaceful, something that they want to continue.

Both men called for greater communication across both sides.

"We don't understand why they're protesting," Akhet said. "And because of our lack of our understanding in the black community of why they're protesting, and our lack of communication amongst each other, we don't understand what they're doing what they're doing, and they don't understand what we're doing."

South Carolina lawmakers passed a bill to remove the flag July 9, 2015, not quite a month after the Mother Emanuel AME shooting of nine black parishioners. The law gave specific, yet limited instructions for the flag to be "transported to the Confederate Relic Room for appropriate display." The state's estimated fiscal requirements for a future display were also limited.

"It immediately went into storage in an acid-free box with acid-free tissue, into alarmed storage in an environmentally secure area, and there it has been since then," museum director Allen Roberson said.

The SC Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum Commission submitted a feasibility study and budget to display the flag to the General Assembly in December 2015. The proposal included a $550,000 display for the flag as part of a $3.6 million expansion to the museum.

The General Assembly failed to respond to the Commission's proposal in the spring of 2016, and also introduced a proposal to study moving the museum and flag to Charleston. That study was vetoed by Gov. Nikki Haley and sustained by lawmakers, leaving the flag's future in limbo.

Groups also share worries about Charleston gentrification 

Bessenger said another area of common concern between the two divergent groups is gentrification in Charleston.

"In 1970, the black community made up about 45 percent of Charleston's population," Bessenger said. "Today, it's around or less than 25 percent. In January of this year, Charleston was called the 'fastest gentrifying city' in the country. That's unacceptable."

Bessenger cited Hampton Park Terrace and Elliotborough as neighborhoods which lost more than 50 percent of their black populations, a change he said happened under "the watchful eye" of former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

"So I'm calling on the white community and Confederate heritage community together to stand with our black brothers and sisters here in Charleston, and in other places," he said. "We've seen the government of Charleston consistently and gradually turn working class black neighborhoods into middle class and more affluent white neighborhoods."

Bessenger referred to calls to add plaques that tell the "whole truth" about historic figures like John C. Calhoun, a slavery supporter, to monuments erected in their honor.

"If we're going to be in the process of putting historical markers next to people that we believe have done injustices to the black community, I suggest that we put a marker over there next to the Joe Riley Stadium talking about the gentrification that took place under his watch."

Bessenger said it was time the white community took notice of something that has historically not been discussed.

"It's easy as white people to ignore the fact that our black brothers and sisters are being pushed out of their homes to make room for more affluent northerners to come down, open businesses, build all these rich homes and get rich off the backs of our black community," he said. "It's been blacks that are pushed out of their home and people that look like me moving into those neighborhoods."

A January report by listed Charleston at the top of U.S. cities gentrifying the fastest. Other cities in the list included Asheville, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon and Denver.

Groups show solidarity despite differences

Bessenger said they sat together for two to three hours.

"Maybe this is something other organizations across the south and across the country can learn from," he said. "When we put our egos aside, put the flag issue aside, put the monument issue aside, and talk about other things that after all this media hubbub dies down we're still going to have to deal with, we have far more in common than not."

"When the statues come down, we're still going to have poverty," Akhet said.

Akhet encouraged those he said who are fighting for racial justice to put energy they have invested in the John C. Calhoun statue issue into the school system, and cited the Charleston County School District in particular.

"This is the kind of aggression we need to have on substantive issues," he said. "Because if [the Calhoun statue] comes down tomorrow, guess what: we're still going to have failing schools."

It is the second time this week the two groups, which acknowledge they are often on opposite sides on issues of Confederate symbols and monuments, have held a joint news conference.

"I know this is a very awkward scene," Shakem Amen Akhet, of the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement, said during Tuesday's news conference. "Never before have you seen these two separate factions together standing at one podium."

"We're both hearing on both of our sides, these two communities over opposite sides of this debate, that Charleston has every bit of potential to become the next Charlottesville," South Carolina Secessionist Party Chairman James Bessenger said during Tuesday's news conference. "We don't want to see that. I don't want that for anyone on their side, they don't want that for anyone on our side."

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