The Confederate battle flag was finally taken off the grounds of the South Carolina State House on Friday, ending a tense, weeks-long debate sparked by the tragic murder of nine African American churchgoers at the hands of alleged shooter and white supremacist Dylann Roof — who was reportedly a proud supporter of the rebel emblem. The flag’s removal was the culmination of a longstanding dispute over its significance, with supporters arguing that the banner signifies “heritage, not hate” even as historians, lawmakers, descendants of Confederate leaders, and people across the country protested it as a symbol of horrific violence and oppression enacted against African Americans.
But while some backers of the flag in South Carolina — the first state to secede during the Civil War — may lament moving it into a museum, they need not abandon pride in their home state. Although the Palmetto State has long struggled with issues of racial violence and poverty, it still has a lot to be proud of, and has a parallel history that includes moments of profound justice.
Below are a few examples, including several unexpectedly progressive historical happenings from the heart of the Confederacy.
1) Playing a crucial role in the American Revolution.
If South Carolinians really want to focus their pride on a war, then there is another, (relatively) less slavery-focused conflict they can claim as their own. In fact, South Carolina’s modern obsession with the Civil War has always been a touch ironic, given that the Palmetto State played an outsized role in that other major war fought on U.S. soil — the American Revolution.
South Carolina actually broke away from the British crown before anyone else in 1776, becoming the first republic in America roughly four months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (It was also the first state to ratify the Articles of Confederation) And while residents of New England like to pretend the only Revolutionary War skirmishes that mattered were Lexington and Concord, a disproportionate number of battles were fought in the Palmetto State. This includes the Battle of Cowpens, which was waged in Cherokee County, South Carolina. A decisive victory for the Patriots, most military historians credit that battle — along with the Battle of Kings Mountain, which also took place in South Carolina — as a key turning point in the war, tilting the scales in favor of the Patriots.
Granted, South Carolina, like other American colonies, had its fair share of Loyalists — people who sided with the British during the revolution. But it was also the home of Francis Marion, a hero of Revolution who earned the nickname “the Swamp Fox” for assembling a rag-tag band of local fighters and launching successful guerrilla raids on British forces. (His legend was the basis for the less-than-historically-accurate film The Patriot, which was, appropriately, filmed largely in South Carolina) Thomas Sumter, another famous guerrilla fighter, also achieved acclaim for his attacks on the Redcoats, and was eventually dubbed the “Carolina Gamecock” because of his ferocity in battle — a term that lives on as the mascot of the University of South Carolina to this day.
2) Electing the first African American to the U.S. House of Representatives.
South Carolina has a long, sordid history of race relations, but nestled within this lengthy canon of oppression is a series of less-discussed triumphs for people of color.
In December of 1870, during the early years of Reconstruction, Joseph Rainey of Charleston, South Carolina won a special election to become the first African American House member in U.S. history, representing South Carolina’s 1st District. He served four terms in that position, during which time he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1875, even as African Americans in his state were repeatedly attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and roving militant gangs known as the Red Shirts. Although he was forced relocate his family to Connecticut to keep them safe, he maintained his residency in Charleston, defying the racists with his continued presence and support for equality. In addition, Rainey, who was born into slavery, became the first African American to preside over the House of Representatives as Speaker pro tempore in May 1874.
Several South Carolina African Americans have been elected to national office since that time, including James Clyburn (D), who served as the House Majority Whip from 2007 to 2011. And while Republican policy positions are rightly challenged by those on the Left, one of South Carolina’s U.S. Senators and its current governor are both people of color: Tim Scott (R) is the first African-American senator from the state of South Carolina (and the first elected in the South since reconstruction), and Governor Nikki Haley (R) is both the first female governor in the state’s history and one of two Indian-American governors in the country.
3) Hootie and the Blowfish/Darius Rucker (yes, seriously).
There are probably some people out there who fail to appreciate the musical brilliance that was Hootie and the Blowfish, who got their start in Columbia, South Carolina. But those people are wrong: Cracked Rear View is a masterpiece, and anyone who says otherwise obviously hates fun.
Besides, the band’s massive national success launched the solo career of frontman Darius Rucker, born in Charleston, who is lauded for both his raw talent and ability to break color lines in the country music genre. In 2009, he became the first black person to win the New Artist Award from the Country Music Association, making him the second African American in history to win any award from from the CMA. Rucker is also probably the only person to get away with covering Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel, winning a Grammy for his version of the song in 2014.
Incidentally, Rucker is well acquainted with the Confederate flag debate. In 1994, he received death threats for “Drowning,” a song off of Cracked Rear View that specifically criticized the flag. It included the lyrics “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls? / Tired of hearin’ this shit about heritage not hate / Time to make the world a better place.”
(For non-country fans, other South Carolina-born musicians include James Brown, Edwin McCain, Dizzy Gillespie, Chubby Checker, and Samuel Beam of Iron and Wine.)
4) Giving birth to Reform Judaism, thanks to policies of religious tolerance.
The infamous anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the Ku Klux Klan created a horrific legacy of faith-fueled bigotry in South Carolina, but the early years of the state were marked by an unusually liberal embrace of religious tolerance. Colonial governors instituted policies specifically designed to attract and harbor oppressed religious minorities in Europe such as Protestant “dissenters,” French Huguenots, Quakers, and Jews. This was in stark contrast to colonies in the Northeast, where groups such as the Puritans in Boston rigidly enforced specific methods of religious observance, even going so far as to publicly execute people who worshipped differently from them.
These policies ultimately helped make Charleston home to the largest Jewish community in the country by the early 1800s, which served as the seat of American Jewish thought for many years. Many attended the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue in downtown Charleston, which is where — on November 21, 1824 — forty-seven members of the congregation signed a petition demanding several reforms, such as the “abridgement of the Hebrew ritual, English translation of the prayers, and a sermon in English.” When their concerns were rejected, the group formed “The Reformed Society of Israelites” and designated playwright and newspaper editor Isaac Harby as their leader. The organization only lasted nine years, but their ideas are cited as the foundational intellectual framework that helped create the Reform Judaism we know today.
5) Producing really funny — and really liberal — comedians.
For all of South Carolina’s serious issues, the state has a produced some pretty rockstar comedians. Among the region’s most famous funnymen is Stephen Colbert, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, who has long touted his proud affiliation with the Palmetto State. Although Colbert intentionally suppressed his Southern accent in his quest to become performer, he still claims his proud Sandlapper heritage, defending the state from attacks by fellow liberals, “running for President” there in 2008, and championing the superiority of South Carolina’s (plentiful) peaches compared to those (paltry few) grown in Georgia. And in case anyone doubted his dedication to his fellow South Carolinians, this year Colbert gave $800,000 in grants to public school teachers across the state.
Meanwhile, stand up comedian and Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari was born in Columbia, South Carolina and raised in nearby Bennettsville. Ansari has spoken openly about his Southern upbringing, lauding the deliciousness of the region’s food and using descriptions of the state’s struggles with racism to frame jokes for his acts. In addition, Chris Rock was born in Andrews, South Carolina, and discovered in 2008 that his great-great grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, was born a slave in South Carolina and enlisted in the Union Army in 1865 to fight against the Confederacy.
6) Birthing a titan of organized labor.
South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, making it a less-than-ideal place for unions to organize and function. Nevertheless, Camden, South Carolina was the birthplace of Lane Kirkland, a famous union leader who served as President of the AFL-CIO for over sixteen years. Raised in Newberry, South Carolina, Kirkland is said to have attended high school and college with the children of textile mill workers, an experience he later cited as inspiring his “social conscience.” He also reportedly insisted on referring to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” but his rhetorical embrace of Confederate history belied a fierce support for Civil Rights: An October 1979 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine told of him “lobbying around the clock for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for inclusion in it of a ban on racial discrimination in the employment practices of industry unions.”
Kirkland was also an ardent supporter of Poland’s Solidarity movement, or trade union movement, which helped lead to the decline of communism in the country. For his lifetime of advocacy, he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George H. W. Bush, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, and posthumously granted the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest award, after his death in 1999.
Kirkland is also credited with coining the line, “If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.”
7) Defending civil rights champion Sarah Mae Flemming.
Rosa Parks’ courageous refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus is rightly remembered as one of the most important acts of the African American Civil Rights movement — but she wasn’t the black woman to fight to end segregation on public transportation. A full seventeen months before Parks launched her protest in Alabama, an African American woman named Sarah Mae Flemming trigged controversy in Columbia, South Carolina when she took the only available seat on a bus during her commute to work — a seat that happened to be in the “whites only” section. When the driver verbally chastised her, Flemming offered to get off at the next stop, but the driver blocked her path as she tried to leave and punched her in the stomach as she existed the bus.
Flemming hadn’t intended to stage a protest, but she willingly agreed when a local attorney offered to help her sue the bus company for violating her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. Like Rosa Parks’ case, Flemming’s lawsuit ultimately became mired in a series of dismissals, but it helped pave the legal groundwork for later rulings that upheld the rights of African Americans and ended the scourge of segregation in the United States.
8) Cultivating a robust eco-economy in the state.
Due in part to the state’s rural nature, a sizable chunk of South Carolina’s economy is based around natural resources, with “nature based industries” such as farming, forestry, outdoor recreation, and tourism accounting for over $54 billion of the state’s economy — or around one in four jobs, according to a study by the Rural Resource Commission. In addition to ensuring the protection of several parks and natural preserves (Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, South Carolina is said to be largest privately-owned urban forest in America, dwarfing even New York’s Central Park at more than 2,100 acres), this collectively helps create the political capital to protect natural habitats: The ACE Basin, a 217,000 acre stretch of preserved land within South Carolina’s Coastal Plain, was protected in part due to a grassroots organizing campaign that has since served as a model for conservation efforts throughout the country.
The result has created a uniquely Southern brand of environmentalism, where gun-toting hunters and advocates for green initiatives are sometimes one and the same. Conservation is often a bipartisan issue in the Palmetto State, where the environmentalist group Conservation Voters of South Carolina regularly endorses both Republicans and Democrats — so long as they promise to protect the state’s water, land, air, and promote clean energy.
The political results of this advocacy have sometimes been mixed, of course, but arguably impressive given the state’s conservative leanings. In 2007, the legislature passed a law requiring new state buildings to meet LEED standards, and while climate change remains a contested topic for many local elected officials (including the governor), state employees are already working to push lawmakers on climate issues: In 2013, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) published a report calling on the state to combat the effects of global warming. The study was controversial, primarily because the DNR refused to release it publicly for some time, but its existence is evidence of a growing conservationist movement within the state.
9) Trying to institute marriage equality before it was technically legal.
South Carolina wasn’t the first Southern state to embrace same-sex marriage, but several of its denizens tried really hard to bring it there swiftly. After the Supreme Court effectively made same-sex marriage legal in Virginia on October 6, 2014, marriage equality was potentially legal throughout the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes South Carolina) so long as a lower court ruled on an existing case involving the right to marry.
But for one judge in Charleston, South Carolina, that was simply too long to wait. On October 8 of last year, Probate Judge Irvin Condon agreed to grant a marriage license to Colleen Condon and Nichols Bleckley, a lesbian couple, arguing that the higher court’s decision already made marriage equality legal in the state. Colleen Condon, who sits on the Charleston County council, told the Charleston Post and Courier, “It’s an exciting day for South Carolina to have a marriage license accepted for the first time.”
Unfortunately, South Carolina has a 24-hour waiting period before marriage licenses can be issued, and the state Supreme Court halted the the judge’s action until a formal ruling on same-sex marriage was handed down. Colleen Condon and Bleckley sued, and the District court ended up ruling on their case on November 12, declaring that same-sex marriages would be legal in the state at noon on November 20.
Other Southern states such as North Carolina had already okayed marriage equality by this time, but at least some of South Carolina’s residents deserve credit for fighting to bring same-sex marriage to the Palmetto State as quickly as possible.
South Carolina barbecue (mustard-based, the way God intended), isn’t technically historic or progressive…But it is delicious.
And if you’re not into that, try the state’s grits, biscuits, or seafood — you won’t regret it.
An earlier version of this article claimed Hootie and the Blowfish got their start in Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, the band met at the University of South Carolina, and thus initially played gigs in Columbia. Apologies to Hootie and company: I just want to love you, the best that, the best that I can.