A photo snapped at a gathering hosted by a national Republican Women's organization is raising eyebrows after it was posted online and spread across the internet. The image shows a white South Carolina Republican Senate leader dressed in Confederate attire posing with two blacks in costumes characterized as reminiscent of slavery.
The image has brewed up a national firestorm of controversy.
Dot Scott, an NAACP leader in Charleston, said Thursday that the image of Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell "is just another blight" on South Carolina, a state which continues to struggle in balancing modern-day political correctness and its rich but scarred past. In 2000, the state was thrust into the national spotlight as legislators debated whether the old Confederate battle flag should continue to fly over the state's capitol.
McConnell, a Civil War re-enactor and history enthusiast who objected to removing the flag from atop the capitol in 2000, is defending the photo. In interviews with newspaper reporters in Columbia and Charleston, McConnell said the photo shows how far race relations have come in the state. "Tell me what is offensive about having the differing parts of the culture there?" he asked. "This picture says, if anything, how we cross cultural lines."
The purported "slaves" in the image are actually Sharon and Frank Murray, a couple who have been working for two decades in preserving the Gullah culture. Ms. Murry says she was invited to the GOP gathering to represent an historical culture of South Carolina. "The clothing we wear is 1860s skilled artisans wear," Murray said. "We have never said that we are trying to re-enact slave characters because we are not. That evening it was to introduce the Gullah culture."
But Scott says the Murrays have their history wrong. "They are dressing as we were — as our ancestors were at that time. We were slaves," she said. "In 2010, while we're trying to say we're in a post-racial era, South Carolina's elected officials both locally and nationally have continued to do things that are really atrocious."
Murray says she and her husband have posed with numerous re-enactors portraying soldiers from both the North and South over the years. During the Charleston GOP meeting in question, she and her husband discussed Gullah culture with the crowd and sang the hymn "Heaven Belongs to You."
"The basis of that song is if you pray right, if you act right, if you treat people right — if you do all of that then heaven belongs to you," Murray says.
Murray also says she found the internet comments surrounding the photo ironic. "We are hearing so many things that contradict if you pray right, and act right and treat people right," she said.
The picture of the Murrays posing with McConnell spread across the internet after blogger Will Folks posted them on Fitsnews.com Tuesday night. Folks, a former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, was most recently in the news for claiming in May that he had a sexual relationship with Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in 2007. Haley denied the affair and Folks offered no proof.
McConnell, who has been a re-enactor for 20 years has been under pressure this week to apologize for the image, but remains steadfast in denying any wrongdoing. "What the ladies had put together was a smorgasbord of Southern culture," he says. "It was reflected in the dress, the historical accuracy of the performances and even down to the food. It was wonderful, entertaining and educational night for those visitors. It showed the approach we have in this state of a shared history.
"If somebody is trying to be politically correct and use a tunnel vision on it and hook in the slavery issue, they're on a slippery slope toward narrow-mindedness and they should extend the charity of understanding. Receive it in the spirit that it is presented."