CHARLESTON — When the body of the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckey lies in state in the South Carolina Statehouse on Wednesday, it will be in the shadow of the Confederate flag that lawmakers here promise to remove.
The man who cut a deal to keep the flag at the statehouse will be at Pinckey’s funeral, too.
Glenn McConnell is the president of the College of Charleston. In 2000, he was the senate president who crafted a bill to move the flag from atop the statehouse to a Confederate memorial on statehouse grounds.
On Friday, President Obama will deliver the eulogy for Pinckney at the College of Charleston. Also in attendance will be Vice President Biden, the First Lady, a certain collection of South Carolina luminaries, and presumably McConnell.
McConnell, a Republican, has had a long love affair with the Confederacy. He’s a longtime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who dresses up in a rebel uniform and fires a brass cannon at Civil War reenactments. In real life, McConnell ran a thriving Confederate-themed gift shop and mail-order business.
As a legislator, McConnell secured millions from the state budget to preserve the H.L Hunley, a submarine used by the Confederacy and the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.
In 2000, after a march from the sea led by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to protest the flag’s perch, McConnell crafted a bill to move the flag to a Confederate memorial. In the 1990s, McConnell said trying to eliminate symbols of the antebellum South could lead to “cultural genocide.”
McConnell didn’t just move the flag, he planted it in legislative cement: requiring a two-thirds vote of the entire legislature to take down the flag in the future.
McConnell later said to this reporter that the two-thirds vote was meant to insulate the flag for some time from further debate. And so it did for 15 years, until a Confederate flag-loving gunman cut down nine of God’s children at church.
As one longtime legislator said of the maneuver a few years ago, polarization has been such that “you couldn’t get two-thirds of the body to agree on what day of the week it is.”
After two years as lieutenant governor, McConnell retired from politics and became president of his alma matter, the College of Charleston (located on Calhoun Street, blocks away from Mother Emanuel). McConnell was not universally welcomed at the college, where many members of the faculty and community worried about his relationship with symbols of the state’s racist past.
The college, a liberal arts school on the rise, has a student body that is usually more than two-thirds female, and has one of the lowest minority representations in the state college system.
Some worried that naming a Civil War-loving president flew in the face of the school’s recent attempts to seem, well, more modern. Others argued that McConnell was personally progressive and still had power in the state capital.
College spokesperson Mike Robertson said his boss would not grant any interviews until the funerals of the nine dead are completed out of respect for the families.
One of the nine victims, Cynthia Hurd, worked part-time at the college’s main libraries for close to 15 years, according to Robertson. During the week, she managed a county library branch, mentored co-workers, and served on boards of nonprofits helping families in public housing.
Those who worked alongside and with McConnell won’t label him a racist, with most saying that he truly believed in the “heritage” element of the flag and not the “hate” it’s come to symbolize in the hands of people like Dylann Roof.
It appears, then, that the words issued by the state’s former attorney general, James Louis Petigru, in 1860 after South Carolina seceded from the Union, still hold true today: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”