The memory of the Civil War collided with modern-day civil rights as protesters targeted a “secession ball” marking South Carolina’s decision 150 years ago to secede from the United States of America.
As blacks and whites gathered in the twilight with electric candles and signs for a protest by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, a predominantly-white group of men in old-fashioned tuxedos and women in long-flowing dresses and gloves stopped to watch and take pictures before entering the Charleston auditorium where the ball was taking place.
The South Carolina men who voted 169-0 to leave the US 150 years ago set in motion a chain of events that reverberate today.
The decision led to a war that killed nearly 2% of the nation’s population – more than 600,000 people. That is roughly the same number that have died in all the other wars America has fought in from the Revolution, to both world wars and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. It would be the equivalent of six million Americans dying today.
NAACP leaders said it made no sense to hold a gala to honour men who committed treason against their own nation for the sake of a system that kept black men and women in bondage as slaves, and compared Confederate leaders to terrorists and Nazi soldiers.
“The Germans had a heritage too. Why does South Carolina and America think this is the right thing to do?” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the group’s South Carolina branch.
But organisers of the £65-a-head private event said the ball had nothing to do with celebrating slavery, but was a fund raiser to honour the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states’ rights.
“We honour our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion,” said Michael Givens, commander in chief for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group’s central purpose is to preserve the history and legacy of the South’s “citizen-soldiers”.
Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, which put on the event, said the ball’s organisers did not condone or endorse slavery in any way. “It’s hard for us to judge the situation that existed then by today’s standards. I think slavery is an abomination. But it’s a part of history, legal at the time. I don’t agree with it, but it was,” Mr Burbage said.
Mr Burbage condemned what he said was NAACP’s inflammatory language, saying: “Any group that wants to call our ancestors terrorists and compare them to Nazi soldiers, we will not negotiate with. We didn’t need to get their permission to put this thing on, or will we ever seek their permission. We do our thing, they’ll do their thing.”