NAACP Boycott Worries South Carolina's Blacks

The NAACP's economic boycott of South Carolina's $9.1-billion-a-year tourism industry is causing concern among some black business owners.

The boycott, aimed at removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, took on added momentum this month when the civil rights organization started sending protesters to state welcome centers in an effort to discourage tourism.

"We are here to tell folks who are coming into South Carolina not to shop, not to stop until the flag is dropped," said the Rev. Charles White Jr., the NAACP's Southeast regional director, during a protest at a welcome center in York County near the North Carolina state line.

But some fear the NAACP's boycott may end up harming the people the organization claims to represent.

"It would have a possibility of hurting some of your very own," said grocery store owner John Sketers.

Sketers, who is black, lives in Atlantic Beach, a small seaside community whose economy relies heavily on black tourism.

"It means our survival," said Mayor Irene Armstrong, who is also black.

Atlantic Beach is best known for its annual "Bikefest," a weekend-long event in February that usually attracts thousands of predominantly black motorcycle enthusiasts. Town officials fear a prolonged boycott could reduce the number of visitors in the future.

"I think there are some other ways to resolve this issue without targeting tourism," Armstrong said.

The NAACP first announced economic sanctions against South Carolina in 1999 in an effort to remove the Confederate flag from atop the state Capitol dome.

In 2000, tourist development organizations successfully lobbied the state to move the flag to a "place of historical significance." Legislators decided to move the flag to a 123-year-old Civil War memorial on the Capitol grounds, in what they thought was a compromise.

But NAACP leaders insist they never agreed to any compromise and promise to continue their boycott until the Confederate flag is removed from state property entirely.

Adding fuel to the controversy, a Louisiana-based "white rights" group has started sending its own protesters to welcome centers to counter-demonstrate against the NAACP.

"If they're going to tell people not to come, I'm going to tell people to come," said Roger Stewart, a protester with the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO).

On Monday, South Carolina filed a lawsuit to stop demonstrators on both sides.

"Before long, our state's welcome centers will become message centers for demonstrators of all stripes," said South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon. "That is why we simply cannot allow this precedent to go unchallenged."

Condon said governments have successfully blocked newspaper venders from welcome centers and rest areas, but admitted his efforts to ban political demonstrations move into uncharted legal waters.

While the courts decide whether the welcome center protests can continue, business owners of all races say they hope tourism in South Carolina remains strong.