By Barney Blakeney
The only way the Charleston County Republican Party Second Annual Black History Banquet could have been any better is if all of Charleston could have been squeezed into The Citadel Holliday Alumni Center on Hagood Avenue in downtown Charleston February 8. That way, our entire community could have witnessed one of the most moving and transformative events of our time.
Since its inaugural banquet last year, the concept and purpose of the event has been scrutinized by Blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans. For an event that is supposed to be non-political, the political overtones surrounding it nearly have been overwhelming. Charleston County Republican Party Chair, Larry Kobrovsky asked me to attend as his guest. Last year Chronicle founder James French was among the inaugural recipients of the banquet’s North Star Award. Kobrovsky invited me to attend on French’s behalf.
I consider Kobrovsky a good friend. I’ve known him since his days as a member of Charleston County School Board. Our views sometimes differ, but Kobrovsky’s an attorney – he thinks objectively, and he’s a smart guy. Whether or not I agree with his positions, I always see some logic in his perspectives. I’ve come to value and trust his opinions. I was reluctant to get involved in the controversy. Larry convinced me to look at the big picture. Most folks understood how progressive the initiative is, he said.
I drew on a quote by Martin L. King Jr. – “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy” – and chose to trust my friend. I couldn’t have made a better choice. From the moment I entered the building teasing one of the security officers – a big burly white guy – about whether he or I was better looking, the evening was a fun-filled interactive engagement with folks whom I thought I shared very little.
It’s been my experience that people perceive the same things in different ways depending on knowledge, understanding and preference. More often than not, our perception of stuff usually has nothing to do with what the thing actually is as much as what we want it to be. Hence, a recognition program for those who have made significant contributions to our community, for some people, became a racially tinged political football. I thought for local Republicans to recognize some Black folks who have made a mark in local Black History was a stroke of genius.
We struggle to put aside racial and political preferences, even when it’s expedient to do so. I see the annual Charleston County Republican Party Black History Banquet as a good way to reach out to a segment of our community that rejects all things Republican based on some misperceptions often perpetuated by those who have some selfish motives for maintaining such divisions.
I’ve always thought the near exclusive support the Democratic Party enjoys from Black voters is political, economic and social suicide. I view the local Republican Party’s outreach during Black History Month as a political lifeline offering an alternative to that suicide. As the old people say, “It’s a poor rat which only has one hole” and “never put all your eggs in one basket”.
People make political parties, not the other way around. When people become actively engaged in whatever organization with which they choose to affiliate themselves, they determine the paths of those organizations. Unfortunately, as King said, we too often choose a path of comfort and convenience. Invariably a few big mouths bully their way into leadership and the tail begins to wag the dog.
Last Friday night the local Republican Party brought together Black and white folks who chose to venture into a non-political no man’s land. There were as many whites in attendance as Blacks who wanted to reach out and touch someone’s hand in the spirit of mutual respect. I’m sure for many it was an opportunity to peek into the world of those on ‘the other side’. I think a lot of people made some pretty stark discoveries.
Sen. Tim Scott filled in as featured speaker for U.S. Housing Secretary Dr. Ben Carson. who had to change his schedule at the last moment. Scott, who had another appointment that night went on at the beginning of the program and set the tone for the evening. I’ve known Scott a long time, but never have I seen him so relaxed and engaging. He abandoned his usual erectness to literally bend over the reach his audience. He came down from the podium to get on our level so he could interact. He began a theme that would be repeated throughout the evening.
There were other speakers – Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and Emanuel AME Church Pastor Rev. Eric Manning – and the presentation to honorees capsulized the purpose for the gathering. But more than recognizing retired Air Force MSgt. Ken Battle, Probate Court Associate Judge Tamara Curry, theater producer and director Art Gilliard, Charleston County School Board Chair, Rev. Eric Mack and former Goose Creek Rep. Samuel Rivers, I found the most profound experience was brought about by everything else that happened. The spirit of sharing each other’s history and culture abound!
The more than 300 attendees included students and staff from Burke and St. Johns high schools. Burke High’s Stage Band performed several selections including a rendition of James Brown’s “Pass the Peas”. The band’s performance was impeccable and had people rocking in their seats. The Voices of Deliverance singers motivated former Constituent District 1 School Board Chair Thomas Colleton to rise to his feet invoking a ‘church clap’ as they sang “This Little Light of Mine”.
The purpose of the event was to recognize Black History, but it did more. It brought together former Charleston Post and Courier Editor Shirley Green, one of the first Black females hired by the daily newspaper as a reporter and former Cong. Mark Sanford in the same room to witness and experience an unprecedented event that took many of us to a truly wonderful place. That kind of outreach touching the souls of different people, transcending racial and political ideologies and offering glimpses into each other’s worlds should continue. The spirit, the feeling that fell over that banquet the other night makes me wish the room were bigger.