HARI SREENIVASAN: In response to the recent events in Charlottesville, something interesting happened in Charleston, South Carolina, yesterday that could be a road map forward.
A secessionist and a black nationalist came together to make sure the racial tensions in their town do not lead to what happened in Charlottesville.
They agreed to what they’re calling the Charleston Accord, which says though they may continue to be on opposite sides of an issue, they would have an open dialogue, promote legal avenues for change, work to prevent violence, and collaborate for the public good when they could.
As part of our Race Matters Solutions, tonight, we have with us James Bessenger of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, and Johnathan Thrower, who goes by Shakem, a self-described black nationalist.
Johnathan, I want to start with you. I will call you Shakem from now on.
JOHNATHAN THROWER, Charleston Black Nationalist Movement: Yes, sir.
HARI SREENIVASAN: To say that the two of you have different world views is an understatement. As of a few nights ago, you and James were exchanging critiques on Facebook. So, give me an idea. How tense are race relations in Charleston, and what changed after Charlottesville?
JOHNATHAN THROWER: Yes.
Well, race relations have lakes been on a sharp decline ever since the Walter Scott and Dylann Roof incident. We know that the Confederate Flag over the South Carolina Statehouse has actually been a boiling point in the media and also in the minds of the people here. Race relations have basically gone down.
So, essentially, what we are looking at now is a situation where you have two ideologies basically amongst white people and black people. And there are people who don’t actually see it as a race issue. It’s also looked as a class issue, because classism is an issue also more so as race.
Right now, it’s almost like a boiling point, and there has been a lot of words exchanged lately. Tensions are very high. Now, with the — a lot of leaders, black and white, calling for the John C. Calhoun statue and a lot of the Confederate monuments to come down in the city, that has sparked the ire and the attention again and put the focus back on race relations in the city. And they were already high to begin with, I mean, very tense to begin with.
HARI SREENIVASAN: James Bessenger, I want to ask you.
For your group, the Confederate monuments and the statues are a source of pride. For members of Shakem’s group, they’re a source of pain. So, how do you have a conversation about something like this, which is deeply personal for people, without it coming to blows?
JAMES BESSENGER, The South Carolina Secessionist Party: I think we have to do that by exactly what we have started here in Charleston.
We don’t see a lot of dialogue between — hardly dialogue any at all between organizations like ours and organizations like his that represent two very polar — polar opposite groups in this debate.
It’s been difficult to try to find someone, at least on our side, that we can talk to like that. But I think sitting down and having a first-time dialogue is a good way to start that process.
HARI SREENIVASAN: James, when you first heard that Shakem — when he reached out to you, tell me a little bit about that.
JAMES BESSENGER: Well, I heard from him the first time. We got to know who each other was a little bit, and it was the first time I had heard from someone on that side of the debate who didn’t describe me as a racist, or a fascist or a neo-Nazi.
So it was kind of refreshing to see that there were people on the other side of this debate that were paying close enough attention to at least see where we were really coming from without jumping to assumptions.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Shakem, When you first met him, what was going through your mind?
JOHNATHAN THROWER: Well, it’s really kind of hard to — when I look at a white person with a Confederate Flag, it also — it brings up a lot of emotion, right, because, normally, that’s my — that brings images of an enemy.
And, you know, in spite of the fact that all of them aren’t Klansmen, which we know, or all of them aren’t KKK members, it’s still something that you have to really get over psychologically in your head, especially as being a black person.
So, that was something that really kind of, you know, took me a moment to get over with — get over. And, also, we have a lot of issues with the Klan here in South Carolina. So, it was just something that really took something in me to sit down and say, OK, let’s see how this issue of race can actually be resolved without coming to blows.
And let me just add something really quick. You asked him a question about, how do we look at this issue? How do we kind of resolve this issue without coming to blows?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.
JOHNATHAN THROWER: One of the things I had to do on my end, as far as talking to black people as a whole and being a leader in this community, I had to really show them that taking down a statue doesn’t end systematic oppression, whether it’s classism or racism.
So, we really — I really wanted them to get a big-picture understanding of what’s being done here. And if we begin to invest all of our energy — and I’m not saying don’t take the statues down, because, if they come down, I’m happy.
But what I had to do before I could even have a conversation about the relevancy of our conversation, I had to let them know that fighting to take a monument down is not necessarily a substantive victory.
So, that’s kind of like what I had to overcome before I can let them know, OK, this is what we’re going to do to stop — to try to prevent some of the violence.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, James, how do you work with organizations and how do you try and stop the violent pulling down of statues that might already be planned or might happen in the future? How do the two of you work together to make sure that at least people know that an organization or a pact or an accord like yours exists and that this would be a violation of that?
JAMES BESSENGER: Well, we both have gone to our communities and let them know what we have agreed on.
Charleston has a wonderful reputation in not responding in that type of way to crises. I guess we saw that with Walter Scott. We saw that with Dylann Roof. Charleston has a different response.
And like Governor McMaster said the other day, Charleston does things differently. South Carolina does things differently. So, I think that what we have started is, it’s gotten a lot of positive feedback already and it’s just giving people a little bit of hope, considering what we have seen so far.
I have a strong inkling that if we were to see things like what we saw in Durham, North Carolina, the other day, that those types of people would come out of state. I don’t think we would see South Carolinians acting that way.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, I want to ask both of you, and kind of brief responses, if you can, Shakem, I want to start with you.
What about the people that are kind of further on the fringe from your position who are going to look at you and say, you know what, you have sold out; just by shaking this man’s hand, you have missed the point; you’re not one of us anymore?
And, eventually, James, I want you to answer the same question.
JOHNATHAN THROWER: OK, this is what I say.
In 2015, when the Confederate Flag came down after we fought so hard to get that to down, we see the murder rate is still increasing. We see that education has still continued to remain at the bottom. South Carolina is last in education.
When you begin to look at the economic conditions that are prevalent in this city, you see that our cities, our urban communities are being starved of resources. So, if what you’re telling me is that I’m selling out because I’m telling you don’t go to jail for pulling down a statue, then I think the problem is with you.
And we need to actually refocus our energy and our intelligence on getting solutions that are going to raise the economic level of black people here in this city. So, that’s what I would say to them.
HARI SREENIVASAN: James Bessenger, what about the neo-Nazis or the Klan or other people who might just say, you know what, you’re a traitor; I can’t believe you’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with this guy right now?
JAMES BESSENGER: I mean, that’s their opinion. They’re entitled to that.
I would tell them that those organizations that have tried to involve themselves in defense of Southern heritage and monuments, they have only made matters worse. When organizations like that presents themselves at these events, like what we saw in Charlottesville, it only exacerbates the problem. And they have made absolutely zero progress in alleviating the tension that we feel.
As far as calling me a race traitor, or what have you, South Carolinians have been family, in lieu of slavery, black and white, for 300-some-odd years. So, I could care less if someone sees me as a race traitor.
Me and this man have more in common with each other than I do with some of those people.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, James Bessenger of the South Carolina Secessionist Party and Johnathan Thrower, Shakem, thank you both for joining us tonight.
JOHNATHAN THROWER: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
JAMES BESSENGER: Yes, sir. Thank you.