By Barney Blakeney
They say that the third time is a charm. The Third Annual Charleston County Republican Party’s Black History Banquet proved there’s validity in the saying. I’ve attended all three of the party’s Black History Month Banquets. Each time I’ve been more amazed than before.
That Charleston County Republicans put on a Black History Month Banquet, some might say, is amazing in itself. But the consecutive success of the annual affair speaks volumes about the members of the county’s party. Republicans get a bad rap in the Black community. The party’s reputation for racist conservative views is exaggerated by the illogical positions of some of its members. I think there’s enough of that to go around – the positions taken by some Democrats are equally illogical. As keynote speaker Armstrong Williams said – and I paraphrase – it ain’t the party, it’s the person.
I was late arriving at the banquet held again at The Citadel Alumni House. Williams already was at the podium. I had no idea he would be keynote speaker. I met Williams in 1981 right after he graduated South Carolina State University. I had not too long before finished school myself and had been working for The Charleston Chronicle several years. My editor Jim French assigned me to interview Williams. I couldn’t figure why then learned that Williams was a young Republican and had ties to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. I guess French saw him as an anomaly since Black folks are supposed to be born Democrats.
Ultimately Williams, who earned a B.A. in Political Science and English, would go on to serve as confidential assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), presidential appointee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and legislative aide and advisor to Thurmond. He is a political commentator, entrepreneur, author, and talk show host. Williams writes a nationally syndicated conservative newspaper column, has hosted a daily radio show, and hosts a nationally syndicated television program called The Armstrong Williams Show. He is the owner of Howard Stirk Holdings, a media company affiliated with Sinclair Broadcasting that has purchased numerous television stations.
I’ve watched his show over the years and with some sense of personal affiliation tracked his journey through journalism with feelings of pride and admiration. Despite his label as “a conservative” and all he’s accomplished, I’ve always seen Williams as the kid I interviewed in his friend’s living room in the Kings Grant community of North Charleston all those years ago.
As I stood in the doorway of the banquet room looking for my host’s table, I recognized Williams’ voice, rhythmic with the cadence of Clarendon and Marion county natives – neighbors of my mother’s Williamsburg County home – ‘bacca’ country. I had come to the banquet not as a reporter, but as the guest of former county Republican Party Chair, Larry Kobrovsky. It was one of the few times in my adult life I didn’t have a pen in my pocket. My bad!
Williams address was inspiring. It’s been a few days since the banquet and I didn’t take notes, but I remember Williams’ theme – regardless of political party affiliation, the sacrifice and suffering that epitomizes Black History demands that we all participate in the political process by voting! Williams refrained from encouraging the audience to vote for Republican candidates, exhorting them instead to vote for the candidate of their choice. I didn’t get the impression Williams was pandering to the sold out approximately 50 percent Black audience. I got the surprisingly refreshing impression he was genuine in his admonition.
As we plod through this depressing political era where partisanship politics unmasks all that America has espoused but never truly realized, it was encouraging to hear a political conservative advocate what true democracy really means – the right of all to vote for the candidate of their choice based on the values we all say we hold dear.
After Williams’ motivating address and the 2020 Black History Month Banquet honorees received their North Star awards, so named in recognition of the newspaper published by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, I found myself wondering why no whites have received the award. After all local Black History is enamored with the contributions of whites such as J. Waites Waring, Armand Derfner and others.
Maurice Washington, the party’s newly-elected chair is part of our living Black History. He is the first African American to chair the local Republican Party since Reconstruction. Receiving the North Star Award he was joined by seven other recipients who included: Rev. Jimmy Gallant, attorney Debra Gammons, artist Jonathan Green, the late musician James Jamerson, North Charleston/Summerville Community Resource Director Louis Smith, S.C. BLEXIT Director Johnathan Thrower, and former Charleston County Election Commission Chair, Awendaw Town Administrator and businessman Dan Martin.