December 10, 2013

The controversy over Pickens County Sheriff Rick Clark’s refusal to lower his office’s American flag in honor of Nelson Mandela leaves us hopeful for balance and lessons learned.

Mandela, as surely everyone knows by now, died Thursday after doing decades of battle with the South African system of Apartheid that separated blacks from whites in a clearly racist system depriving blacks of basic dignity and rights because they were black. Blacks were segregated from whites, had different systems of education, healthcare, beaches, public service in a way inferior to whites.

The system came to an end in 1994 after President F.W. De Klerk began reforms that led to Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa.

Clark declined an order of President Barack Obama to lower flags to half staff through sundown Monday. The order by the president was made under the advisory Flag Code, so Clark is not bound by it in a legal sense.

So by appearances pointed out by many who wrote and called us, Pickens County faced the image of a white southern sheriff “defying” the order of a black president to honor another black man.

The comparison of Apartheid to government-sanctioned segregation in the American South is notable and therein lies at least one hot button for critics of Clark’s actions.

Critics chaffed at the thought of being identified as racists because they live in a land others might see as racist because of Clark’s actions. Doubtless critics had visions of being linked again to the image of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, who set dogs and fire hoses on black protesters in the 1960s.

Those fears are certainly bolstered by commonly-seen sneers in some areas of the South. Some southerners still refuse to acknowledge the good in the advancements caused by the peaceful pressure of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership brought more equality to blacks, poor whites, Hispanics and women.

But any evidence of racism on the part of Clark remains only a speculation based on appearances. Judging on appearances is often misleading, unfair and harmful to the overall good works of public servants like Clark.

He is able to say in his defense that he suggested we all consider the good works of Mandela, a man he admired with a mission he admired.

It is arguable that Clark’s motivation weighed heavily toward patriotism and passion for law officers and U.S. military personnel. He argued he was acting on a personal conviction that the greatest honor should be given to Americans. It is an argument that plays well among Clark’s constituency.

Clark wanted to acknowledge the loss of a Low Country law enforcement officer. Service members lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor also deserve high praise and notice even 72 years after the event. American flags are a great symbol to honor the loss of American heroes.

Both sides of this conflict hold valid arguments. There is room to allow Clark’s First Amendment right to free expression in acknowledgment of those heroes.

But there was also room for Clark to acknowledge Mandela on Monday or simultaneously to the others without specifically denying credit due a great man who has shown us all a better way to live. He could have represented us better by actively avoiding what should have been an obvious specter of racism.

We all need to pay closer attention to the lessons taught by men like Mandela. Challenging others on racist activity remains a need in Pickens County. It still exists today, but we need to make sure we are pointing the finger in the right direction.

Mandela’s own example of dealing with conflict may work well. He was a man who suffered under the racism of segregation for decades. He was imprisoned for fighting for equality for himself, his family and his neighbors. He busted rocks on a rock pile for 17 of the 27 years he was in prison.

In the end he was freed and rose to power in the African National Congress which had struggled for decades for equal rights.

His one-time opponent F.W. De Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, said that Mandela could have used bitterness to drive retribution against whites. He could have created a one-party system led by a black majority, locking out whites from any power.

Mandela did not take the road of bitterness, however. Instead he chose to use techniques of inclusion and reconciliation to build a better country and leave an example for a better world.

We can all use a dose of that.