COLUMBIA, S.C. – A black state senator is pushing a bill that would require South Carolina cities and counties to give their workers a paid day off for Confederate Memorial Day or lose millions in state funds.
Democratic Sen. Robert Ford's bill won initial approval from a Senate subcommittee Tuesday. It would force county and municipal governments to follow the schedule of holidays used by the state, which gives workers 12 paid days off, including May 10 to honor Confederate war dead. Mississippi and Alabama also recognize Confederate Memorial Day.
Years ago, Ford said, he pushed a bill to make both that day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day paid holidays. He considered it an effort to help people understand the history of both the civil rights movement and the Confederacy in a state where the Orders of Secession are engraved in marble in the Statehouse lobby, portraits of Confederate generals look down on legislators in their chambers and the Confederate flag flies outside.
"Every municipality and every citizen of South Carolina, should be, well, forced to respect these two days and learn what they can about those two particular parts of our history," Ford said Tuesday.
In a state steeped in a segregationist past, "there's no love in this state between black and white basically," he said. That's not apparent at the Statehouse, where black and white legislators get along, "but if you go out there in real South Carolina, it's hatred and I think we can bring our people together."
Lonnie Randolph, president of the state conference of NAACP branches, objected to that reasoning.
"Here Senator Ford is talking about the importance of race relations by forcing recognition of people who did everything they could to destroy another race — particularly those that look like I do," Randolph said. "You can't make dishonor honorable. It's impossible."
Ron Dorgay, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Elgin, said race relations have moved far from hatred but he hopes Ford's bill brings more understanding of the state's past.
"Even in school systems, they don't teach the correct history," Dorgay said.
Local governments, meanwhile, are seeing green, not race, when it comes to adding holidays to their calendars.
Large and small counties would put up more cash to cover holidays they don't now recognize, largely for law enforcement and emergency worker overtime, municipal and county association lobbyists said.
Only 10 of the state's 46 counties recognize Confederate Memorial Day and only 27 observe the more benign Presidents' Day.
Greenville County, one of the state's wealthiest and most populous counties, doesn't offer the Confederate holiday. The Judiciary Committee said the county would spend $156,900 to add each holiday to its calendar. Much smaller Laurens County would spend $37,080.
Ford dismissed the costs.
"The good outweighs any kind of rationale you can come up with," he said before the subcommittee sent the bill forward to the full Senate Judiciary Committee for debate, which won't happen until at least next week.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, supports the bill — and holding back chunks of the more than $300 million the state sends local governments each year.
Counties and cities "should be respectful of that as political subdivisions of the state," said McConnell, a Civil War re-enactor who runs a Charleston Confederate wares gallery and on Tuesday fretted how new junk metal collection legislation might affect his cannon. "If they don't want to be a subdivision of the state, then don't take the money."