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The Real Story on South Carolina’s Subversive Activities Registration Act

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As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. This applies to the latest fiction circulating the internet about this “new” law in South Carolina — the Subversive Activities Registration Act – which requires subversive groups to register with the Secretary of State and pay a $5 processing fee, or face a $25,00 fine and/or up to 10 years in jail.

For starters, this law is nearly 50 years old, a relic from the McCarthy era Red Scare — no different from the laws that still exist on the books in many states. The fact that this dusty South Carolina law is on the books is not new, nor is it news.

However, the fact that four South Carolina state senators recently filed a bill to repeal this law may very well be news. Think about it. What would compel four Republican senators from South Carolina (the first state to secede from the Union and the next-to-the-last state to relinquish Jim Crow segregation) to repeal a law requiring subversive groups to register with the Secretary of State?

I’m just saying.

Think about it. Take a closer look at these four Republican senators — all of whom jumped onto the tea party bandwagon with both feet, all of whom have spent the past year as part of the “tenthers” movement and any other movement that constitutes an affront to the Obama Administration — and ask yourself: What do you suppose would compel them to want to repeal this dusty old law?

Senator Lee Bright: Sponsored Senate Bill 424 in February 2009 to “remind” the U.S. Congress of South Carolina’s sovereignty under the 10th Amendment. It took a year of fighting with South Carolina Democrats, but the Republicans finally won out, as — just a few weeks ago — the S.C. Senate officially and for the record declared our state’s right to just say no to the federal government. Afterward, Senator Bright said he was “glad to be finished with the protracted battle,” then added with a laugh, “If at first you don’t secede, try again.”

Senator Kevin Bryant: Made national headlines in July 2008 when he posted a photo of an Obama-Osama T-shirt on his blog (see webshot, below) which read “The difference between Obama and Osama is just a little B.S.” Naturally, Bryant was flummoxed when fellow South Carolinian leaders called his decision to post the photo “classless.” When asked to explain himself, Senator Bryant said,

“It was meant tongue in cheek. I’ve got some questions about Senator Obama’s ties to — such as his comment that we should negotiate with Iran. Iran’s a country that would like to destroy Israel, that bothers me. But is this picture appropriate? I don’t know.”

Senator Larry Martin: After serving for 30 years in the South Carolina legislature, Senator Martin is what you’d call old school. He doesn’t pull dumb stunts like posting classless photos on his blog, nor make jokes about seceding from the Union. But he’s firmly in the camp of the tea baggers. And he’s on board with the tenthers, too, having served in the forefront of the later movement in South Carolina, which began shortly after Obama’s inauguration, when Senator Martin — sensing a state of emergency — astutely urged the S.C. chamber to give priority status on the Senate calendar to the 10th Amendment Resolution so that South Carolina could wage a war of redundancy and hopefully reaffirm, ASAP, our sovereignty under the 10th Amendment. Sen. Martin also does favor for good old South Carolinians. In 1998, for instance, he rallied on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — and the Confederate flag for which they stand — during the infamous Battle of the Azaleas. (What say? You’ve never heard of that battle? Read the SCV’s blow-by-blow account here.) And, lest we forget, it is Senator Martin who is also heading the move, as introduced in the bill last week,  to repeal the Subversive Activities Registration Act.

Senator Lee Cromer: A relative newcomer to the South Carolina ratpack, Senator Cromer has flashed enough racial code, through the teabagger, tenther and other anti-Obama movements to ensure a long political career in South Carolina politics. You do the research.

Think about it: What would compel these four South Carolina senators, who have been riding Obama’s ass ever since his inauguration — resurrecting the ghosts of John C. Calhoun, nullification, states’ rights and secession — to repeal a law that targets seditionists? What would compel four senators who — having just recently celebrated their latest state’s rights victory (as reported here on the “tenther’s grapevine”) to introduce a bill to repeal the Subversive Activities Registration Act?

Think about it: nullification, sovereignty, state’s rights, secession, repealing the Subversive Activities Registration Act…. Could sedition and/or civil war be far behind?

Rust Never Sleeps

To truly understand the tea baggers, the tenthers and this latest effort by these four South Carolina senators to repeal a dusty old bill aimed at thwarting communists and other subversives, it’s helpful to remember that — once upon a time in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South — civil rights activists and the NAACP were considered to be subversive groups. Billboards were erected throughout the South to warn us about this communist threat in our midst. President Truman became a subversive, too — at worst, a communist, at best “soft on communism” — after he proposed efforts to end discrimination, after he integrated the military and proposed integration of public places, after he proposed (but never followed through) on the idea of enacting anti-lynching laws. It was the height of the Red Scare. Astute Southern politicians — finding themselves backed into a corner — seized the opportunity: they hijacked McCarthy’s House un-American Activity Committee and made it their own; they capitalized on the Red Scare by painting blacks as communists; they exploited state laws on subversive groups as yet one more tool to deny civil rights to blacks.


Billboards, such as the one above, showing Dr. King and Rosa Parks attending an integrated event at the Highlander Folk School in 1957 were erected across the South. To the white power structure, integration was a communist plot against the “Southern way of life.” Therefore, anyone attending an integrated event was — by definition — a communist.

Flash forward to the mid-1970s (only 5 years after South Carolina had finally been forced to fall in line with the rest of the South and actually integrate its public school system — and with various anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws being passed at the federal level) and you’d find South Carolina legislators dusting off those old McCarthy era laws. Even as the Supreme Court had long-since ruled such laws unconstitutional, and even as the rest of the country had put the McCarthy witchhunts behind them — Southern leaders began warning us again of the subversives among us. Borrowing from fears of the communist threat of Viet Nam, they chastised the rest of the country for growing complacent about the subversives among us.  In 1976, a handful of South Carolina legislators (Senators Gilbert McMillan, Cooley and Wise, and Reps. Fewell, Klapman and Hines, not to mention the venerable U.S. Senatory Strom Thurmond)  grew so concerned that they revived the state’s Internal Security Committee, an offshoot of McCarthy’s HUAC. They began meeting again and watching “certain” blacks for signs of subversive activity. Rep. Hines even named a few blacks in the state who he said, “might bear watching” for signs of communist activities. These leaders could at least take some comfort in the fact that NAACP members –  being deemed along with the Ku Klux Klan as part of a subversive group — were not allowed to buy guns.

It was Lee Atwater, in the Reagan era, who perhaps saved us from this pathetic attempt to resurrect the ghost of Joseph McCarthy, as Atwater found a new tool for disenfranchinsing blacks — the fiscal conservative movement. Through this nifty tactic, Southerners could now deny equal rights to blacks by pointing out the cost of any program that might benefit or level the playing field for blacks. In the wake of the Atwater era, minorities and the evil liberals who promoted their causes were deemed fiscally irresponsible and to blame for the national debt and our chronic deficits. No matter that it was, and has since been wars and the defense industry sucking our national coffers into the red  — the Southern leadership capitalized on the Atwater offensive and used it to wake the slumbering beast that is racism. Atwater’s movement was so successful, in fact, that — in the early 1990s — South Carolina leaders deemed that dusty old law obsolete and took a mind to repeal it. In 1994,  Bill 4654 was introduced to repeal South Carolina’s Subversive Activities Registration Act. While it initially generated some enthusiasm, it was ultimately referred to committee, where it fell back into obscurity to collect more dust.

It is no coincidence, today, the timing of this latest effort to repeal that law. Call our legislators knuckle-draggers, call them what you will, but they are nothing if not law-abiding citizens.  They make the laws and they keep them. And when the laws no longer suit their purposes, they get rid of them. Or they make new laws. When all else fails, they cry “States’ rights!” and wage war.

This is why the Civil war was about state’s rights, not slavery, and certainly not about morality. The Jim Crow era was also about state’s rights, not white supremacy. The battle against desegregation — the bombing of black churches, the torching of houses, the killing and violence committed against blacks during the civil right era — this, too, was about state’s rights.  The ongoing battle with the Obama Administration, just like the battle against the Truman Administration, is also about states’ rights. And — courtesy of Lee Atwater’s legacy – it is also about that sleeping beast that was awoken at the moment Obama took office: the fiscal conservative movement.

Nevermind that these same fiscal conservatives sat on their hands for 8 years, raising nary a pip while the Bush Administration nearly doubled the debt per family (teabaggers and evil liberals alike) to $82,292. Nevermind the economic armageddon — the collapse of our economy, the soaring unemployment, the skyrocketing foreclosure rates — that Obama inherited from the Bush Administration, prompting the stimulus bill that added another $10,000 to this total.  This is not about race, folks. It’s about saving our country.

To this end, our state leaders find themselves between a rock and a hard place — between a black president and the laws of the land. They are staring down the barrel of a long gun, realizing that unless they do something drastic, blacks might actually –  despite centuries of slavery, Jim Crow law and the myriad subversive efforts to institutionalize discrimination –make gains in their long struggle for equality. What the fiscal conservatives need is a transformative figure. To this end, they have resurrected the ghosts of John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman, Joseph McCarthy, Westwood Pegler, Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater. But what they need is a flesh and blood leader, a living demagogue to serve as a lightning rod to their cause.

Several have applied for the position — from Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, to Joe the Plumber and Joe Wilson. While these folk have made impressive inroads, none have gained quite the degree of fervor necessary to inciting violent rebellion. If history is any indication, however, it may be just a matter of time before some capable hand lights the fuse. And when that time comes, our leaders will be ready. They are, if nothing, law-abiding citizens. To this end, there’s that dusty old law on the South Carolina books that needs to be repealed — an effort whose urgency should be self-evident to anyone who knows the history of our country.

FROM THE BLOG AIKEN CHRONICLES

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