On the one hundredth anniversary of the shots fired at Fort Sumter, the nation saw a bizarre real-life reenactment of South Carolina’s secession, which had to be resolved by a Presidential order. Only this time the President was Kennedy, not Lincoln.
The Day the Flag Went Up
BY BRETT BURSEY
Daniel Hollis talks about Southern history with a familiarity and passion that makes it seem like he was there. He credits his love of history to Lottie Barron, his American history teacher in high school. Hollis was the teacher’s pet, but when Miss Barron told him that the United Daughters of the Confederacy awarded $5 to the best history student every year, he worked even harder.
“I had to join the Children of the Confederacy to be eligible to win,” Hollis recalled. “My grandfather was in the South Carolina 24th regiment. He was an excellent soldier, and I was accepted.”
The day the Confederate flag went up over the State House, the opening ceremonies of the centennial in Charleston were marred by controversy. Newspapers called it “the second battle of Fort Sumter.”
Hollis won the award that year. It was 1938 in post-depression Rock Hill, and $5 was a lot of money.
Hollis’ love for history manifested in a Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University and 36 years of teaching at the University of South Carolina’s history department. His specialty was Southern history and the Civil War.
In 1959, Gov. Fritz Hollings appointed Hollis to serve on a commission to plan the state’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States. President Dwight Eisenhower had commissioned a national Civil War Centennial, and the state centennial commissions were to coordinate activities.
“I’m the only one on the commission left alive,” Hollis said in an August interview. “I tried to get them to call it the `Civil War Centennial,’ but they insisted on calling it the `Confederate War Centennial.’
“I was the only Civil War historian. There were three UDC girls on it, and John May was chairman. May was a state representative from Aiken. He called himself `Mr. Confederacy’ and wore a Confederate uniform to our meetings. I called May an inveterate Confederate.
“They would argue that the war wasn’t fought over slavery but states’ rights. That’s ridiculous. Without the slavery issue South Carolina would not have seceded. You think they would have gotten angry enough about tariffs to start shooting?
“The ruling elite that ran this state all owned slaves. They denied the war was over slavery, insisting that it was over states’ rights. But it was over the states’ right to own slaves and enforce white supremacy,” Hollis said.
In fact, the 169 men who formed the South Carolina Secession Convention all supported slavery and acknowledged in their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” that slavery was the central issue.
James Pettigrew, a former legislator from
Charleston, was one of the few political leaders to criticize the state’s intentions of leaving the Union. “South Carolina is too large to be a lunatic asylum and too small to be a republic,” he said of the plans to secede.
Daniel Hollis is the last surviving member of the centennial commission, appointed in 1959 by Gov. Fritz Hollings to plan the state’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States.
Hollis remembers the day the Confederate flag was hoisted over the State House to commemorate the war. The centennial kicked off on April 11, 1961, with a re-creation of the firing on Fort Sumter. The flag went up for the opening celebrations.
“The flag is being flown this week at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May,” reported The State on April 12. May didn’t introduce his resolution until the next legislative session. By the time the resolution passed on March 16, 1962, the flag had been flying for nearly a year. (This explains why the flag is often erroneously reported to have gone up in 1962).
“May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up,” Hollis said, “but I kept quiet and went along. I didn’t want to get into it with the UDC girls.” The resolution that passed didn’t include a time for the flag to come down and, therefore, “it just stayed up,” Hollis said. “Nobody raised a question.”
“Loyalty to our ancestors does not include loyalty to their mistakes.”
Hollis said he doesn’t recall any racist or political overtones within the commission regarding the hoisting of the flag.
The day the Confederate flag went up over the State House, the opening ceremonies of the centennial in Charleston were marred by controversy. Newspapers reported the open and ugly feuding between South Carolina and the national Centennial Commission, calling it “the second battle of Fort Sumter.”
The centennial delegations from New Jersey and Missouri included blacks who were refused entrance to the segregated Francis Marion Hotel, where the events were to be held. The South Carolina hosts refused to allow the black delegates to participate. In response, the Charleston NAACP organized protests.
The situation was only partially resolved when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order moving the centennial meetings to the Charleston Navy Base, one of the few integrated facilities in town. South Carolina led the South in leaving the national commission, and holding its own segregated events in the hotel.
The dais in the ballroom of the Francis Marion was festooned with Confederate flags when Sen. John D. Long, who had sponsored resolutions that placed the flag over the House and Senate rostrums, warmed up the crowd: “Out of the dust and ashes of War with its attendant destruction and woe, came Reconstruction more insidious than war and equally evil in consequences, until the prostrate South staggered to her knees assisted by the original Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts who redeemed the South and restored her to her own.”
Sen. Strom Thurmond, elected in 1956 on a staunch segregationist platform, and fresh from a run for president as a state’s rights Dixiecrat, also spoke at the opening ceremony. He told the whites-only crowd that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution “does it hint a purpose to insure equality of man or things.”
He said that the Founding Fathers created a republic rather that a democracy, “where everyone rules and majority rule is absolute.” Thurmond warned the crowd that integration was a Communist plot designed to weaken America. “It has been revealed time and time again that advocacy by Communists of social equality among diverse races… is the surest method for the destruction of free governments.
“I am proud of the job that South Carolina is doing [in regard to segregation],” Thurmond said, “and I urge that we continue in this great tradition no matter how much outside agitation may be brought to bear on our people and our state.”
The day the flag went up, headlines in the local newspapers were full of unrest. Besides the centennial controversy, the news that week included:
- Sen. Marrion Gressette, the head of the State Segregation Committee, created in 1951 to recommend measures to maintain segregation, was supporting a resolution condemning former North Carolina Gov. Frank Graham, who had spoken at Winthrop College defending the civil rights movement and calling for integration.
- Thurmond was fighting in Congress to keep federal funding for segregated schools. Political sentiment against school integration was so strong that state politicians vowed to stop all funding to public schools rather than integrate.
- The Freedom Ride with integrated bus loads of civil rights workers was on the road, and there were reports of violence along the route.
- The major story of the week was Kennedy’s executive order to end segregation in work places that do business with the government. The forced integration of South Carolina’s mills outraged politicians and editorial writers.
Hoisting the Confederate flag over the State House didn’t generate any controversy at the time. Perhaps those most offended by it were too busy fighting real-life battles to expend any energy on symbolic ones.
It has only been 38 years since the flag went up, but its defenders seem to have lost their short-term memory. Dr. Hollis calls them “historical revisionists.”
He said there should be no denying that white supremacy was a vital aspect of this state’s political will in 1861, just as it was in 1961. And there can be no separating the banners from this history.When asked to comment on the current controversy over the flag, Hollis quoted George Santayana, who said, “Loyalty to our ancestors does not include loyalty to their mistakes.”