The civil rights movement in Charleston, South Carolina, did not receive the national attention that local movements elsewhere did, owing in large part to the absence of dramatic public protests and extreme racial terrorism. But the impact that the Charleston movement had on the city, as well as the state, was just as profound, resulting in changes that were simply unfathomable before the movement began.
In Charleston in Black and White, Steve Estes explores what has and has not changed in Charleston in the half century since the civil rights movement peaked. By zeroing in on the intersection of race and class in local politics, policing, education, and employment, Estes aims to shine light on “major trends and themes in the modern South and modern America” (p. 6). It’s a tall order for a short book, leading necessarily to narrative shorthand and truncated analysis. But Estes is judicious and does neither excessively.
As a local story, Estes begins with a succinct historical overview of Charleston and the South Carolina lowcountry, from the colonial period through the civil rights era. Two themes stand out. The first is [End Page 306] the constant struggle of African Americans for justice and equality. The second is the paternalistic ethos of the white elite, which shaped the contours of their responses to black protest in both slavery and freedom.
The four chapters on policing, education, and employment demonstrate most clearly the ways that race and class have intersected in Charleston’s recent past to create opportunities for middle-class African Americans to advance, while simultaneously limiting opportunities for poor and working-class African Americans to do the same. Nothing came easy to the former, as exemplified by the struggle of unionized stevedores to keep nonunionized labor out of the Port of Charleston, but almost nothing came at all to the latter, who found it nearly impossible to escape high-crime neighborhoods with deteriorating housing and rigidly segregated public schools.
While this narrative will be familiar to some, Estes’s take on local politics will be much less so. Estes sees black political empowerment emerging initially out of a biracial Democratic coalition forged in the 1970s that held through the 1980s. But, he argues, it was not until black elected officials began working with the federal government and South Carolina Republicans to draw majority-minority districts that they began to win office in sizable numbers. Victory, though, came at a cost. The Republican resurgence, which Estes sees as a product of conservative grassroots organizing rather than presidential leadership, hinged on squeezing white Democrats out of office, and in their absence, black elected officials were without legislative partners. As it turned out, increased black visibility did not mean increased black political power.
Within this discussion, Estes also examines the highly fraught racialized politics surrounding flying the Confederate flag at the state capitol, but since the book was completed before the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in downtown Charleston in June 2015, which precipitated the flag’s removal from the capitol grounds, the story is incomplete. Still, the discussion provides much needed context for understanding why the Confederate [End Page 307] flag became such a hot-button issue in the wake of the murders.
Charleston in Black and White makes clear that the color line still divides the city, as it does much of the South, but not nearly as sharply as it once did. African Americans have made real gains since the civil rights era, but these have been tempered by dramatic changes in the labor market and the political landscape. Indeed, Estes argues convincingly that there are two diverging trajectories for African Americans, one for members of the black middle class who have been able to take advantage of the collapse of Jim Crow, and the other for the poor and working class who remain hamstrung by the seen and unseen forces of racial discrimination. For those endeavoring to make sense of the...