Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: November/December 2011
South Carolina Is Open For Business
By: Michael Bennett

Whoever invented postcards must have had South Carolina in mind. From the southern charms of Charleston, to the beautiful shores of Myrtle Beach and the lush green landscape of Columbia, the Palmetto state is a photographer’s paradise. But the state has more to offer than sheer natural beauty. Charleston is a superb blend of pristine beaches, monumental battleships, wonderful golf courses and breathtaking architecture dating back three centuries, and that just begins to tell the story of this iconic Southern town.

Tourists will find a treasure trove of attractions, recreation, history, culture and nightlife that is uniquely Charleston with all its Southern charms. Attractions include Fort Sumter where the Civil War began, and the 300-year-old Boone Hall Plantation. Visitors to this “working” plantation will see lush gardens, slave quarters and live performances in season plus one of the world’s longest oak-lined avenues.

Much of the African-American experience originated on the shores of Charleston. It is estimated that 40 percent of slaves in the United States entered through Charleston. Much of the early Black experience has been preserved throughout the region in places like Drayton Hall, the Old Slave Mart Museum and Mann-Simons Cottage, the home of Celia Mann, who is said to have walked from Charleston to Columbia to gain her freedom.

The slave trade also brought to our shores the most unique culture in the United States – the Gullah (also called Geechee) people. Gullah is the language spoken by the Lowcountry’s first Black inhabitants. The language preserves much of its African grammar and sentence structure. The culture survives today in and around Charleston and can be experienced through several tours. On the meetings and conventions front the Charleston Convention Center has 150,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and exhibit space with an adjoining performing arts center.

Just a few steps away are the North Charleston Coliseum and an Embassy Suites hotel. Combined, the complex is the largest of its kind in the Southeast. About 100 miles north of Charleston is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s most popular tourist destination attracting 14 million visitors a year. Myrtle Beach has ranked as a top ten tourist destinations in virtually every survey, travel magazine, industry trade group and national newspaper for decades.

Visitors love the 60 miles of sandy beaches, cultural and historic activities, fishing, amusement and water parks, and arguably some of this nation’s top golf courses. When you combine those amenities with live entertainment, exciting nightlife and accommodations ranging from luxurious to family-friendly along with a wonderful year-round climate, it’s no small wonder why Myrtle Beach maintains their pristine reputation.

Popular attractions include; gambling onboard a casino cruise ship, the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade, NASCAR Speedpark and numerous festivals sprinkled throughout the year. For those wanting a touch of the African-American experience there are Gullah Geechee tours and several restaurants in the region that specialize in Lowcountry cuisine. Myrtle Beach is a hot destination for group travel. There are nearly 90,000 hotel rooms in the area ranging from spectacular resorts to quaint cottages and villas. And with 1,700 restaurants there is no shortage of dining options.

The 250,000-sq. ft. Myrtle Beach Convention Center is one of the southeast’s most popular for everything from government meetings to national and regional trade shows and religious gatherings. The center features a 100,800-sq. ft. column-free exhibit hall that divides into three sections, and 17 meeting rooms for breakout sessions. Adjacent to the convention center is the 402-room Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

Other large properties in the area with meeting space include the 855-room Embassy Suites Hotel at Kingston Plantation, the 750-room Ocean Dunes/Sand Dunes Resort Conference Center and The Breakers Resort a 620-room facility with 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Just a couple of hours drive inland from both Myrtle Beach and Charleston is Columbia, the state’s capital and largest city. Columbia is the home of the University of South Carolina and all the energy and vibe that comes with the youthful presence of college age students. For those seeking a somewhat more relaxed pace, Columbia has that too.

The city is divided into “Districts” with a little something for everyone. Main Street / Downtown Columbia is quickly becoming the hip part of town as condos, new restaurants and hip nightlife hotspots are moving in to cater to a new set of youthful residents. The Congaree Vista, the former warehouse district has been transformed into a lively arts community and creative dining scene. The Five Points area is a laid-back bohemian district with a collection of upscale specialty shops and restaurants.

The city’s most popular destinations are Riverbanks Zoo and EdVenture – a top ten children’s museums. For outdoor activity try kayaking on one of the three rivers that converge in Columbia or sailing on Lake Murray. Meeting planners should take a look at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. The convention center is 142,500 sq. ft. with a 24-700-sq. ft. column-free exhibit hall and a 17,000-sq ft. ballroom.  The condensed convention district offers 2,000 hotel rooms and 45 restaurants and bars within a one-mile radius of the convention center.

There is so much to see and do in South Carolina, it’s sad that some are missing out because of an insidious stain from our past that hangs over us like a dark cloud. I’m talking about the Confederate flag issue and the NAACP boycott. Now in its 12th year, the NAACP shows no signs of lifting the boycott anytime soon. The original intent of the boycott was to encourage the state to remove the Confederate Flag from atop the state capitol. Back in 2000, the state legislature voted to take the flag down and place it elsewhere on state grounds. That relocation hasn’t appeased some African-American leaders so the stalemate continues.

In 2001, South Carolina unveiled a monument honoring African-Americans on state grounds, but even that hasn’t persuaded pro boycott forces to soften their position. So where do we go from here? Is it time to end this boycott? Is it time to choose another tactic? Is it time to let this issue go altogether? Does the end justify the means? That’s not for us to decide, but many African-Americans in South Carolina would argue that enough is enough.

Lee H. Moultrie of Lee H. Moultrie and Associates in Charleston, SC and a noted civil rights activist, believes the national NAACP is holding that state hostage and using the issue as a political pawn. “Somehow, we as African-Americans have to decide what we want to do,” Moultrie says. Taking a cue from the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, Moultrie believes its time to “get business owners and young professional graduates to push back on the national NAACP,” and at the appropriate time lead efforts to get certain people out of their leadership position.

While we understand the intent of the boycott, it might be the wrong tactic for the wrong time. The dynamics are different than the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s when one racial group controlled an entire business. It was targeted and effective. Today, economic boycotts take on an entirely different paradigm. Nearly 30 percent of South Carolina’s population is of African descent and in Columbia it’s nearly half.

Moultrie says he knows several Black-owned businesses that have disappeared because of the boycott including a restaurant where the former owner is now an employee.  But not all groups are honoring the boycott. The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Sixth District held their 65th annual meeting in Columbia last year and that district’s Marshall Reginald Howell plans to bring his group back in a few years. Howell says, “we were catered to especially well by all hosting entities and the Mighty Sixth District received proclamations of welcome from the Columbia City Council and Richland County.”

Twila Jones, sales manager at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Authority works on attracting faith-based and fraternal groups to her city. She seldom brings up the boycott unless asked. While the boycott has made her job more difficult she has had some success stories to report including Alpha Phi Alpha who will be coming to Columbia in March 2012 after a 15-year absence.  Ric Luber, president and CEO of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism and the overarching authority for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center says, “from a tourism perspective, we have chosen to remain focused on the issues within our control…despite the flag issue, we choose to showcase the areas within our community that truly reflect the forward movement of our city…currently, we have both an African-American Mayor and an African-American Chief of Police; something that would have been unheard of in years past. Having these two, and many others that serve the Columbia region in elected positions demonstrates how we as a community have not let this issue overshadow our great capital city."

Steve Benjamin, Columbia’s African-American mayor is dealing with a tough economic climate that we can only guess is being exacerbated by lost convention business and resulting lower tax revenues.
And herein lies the rub. Black-elected officials like the mayor and South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the third highest-ranking member in the U.S. House of Representatives, are continually running up against the shadow of the boycott while trying to serve their constituents.  NAACP President Benjamin Jealous doesn’t appear too inclined to let up on the boycott following comments he made at this year’s annual convention in Los Angeles.

“Perhaps the most perplexing examples of the contradiction of this moment in history is that Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first Governor of Color continues to fly the confederate flag in front of her state’s capitol. Given the similarities between our struggles to end slavery and segregation, and her ancestors’ struggle to end British colonialism and oppression in India, my question to Governor Haley is one that Dr. King would often ask himself…what would Gandhi do?” I spent weeks calling leaders on both sides of this issue and most declined comment for fear of reprisal, unless of course they were advocating for the boycott.

The symbolism of the Confederate Flag is painful and chilling. I shudder every time I see that flag, then I realized I was giving that flag power. I refuse to allow any piece of fabric no matter how symbolically painful to take control of my thoughts and actions, including visiting South Carolina.

Rather than continuing to enforce a boycott that is economically unfeasible for people of color in South Carolina, shouldn’t we use the sight of that flag as a reminder of what the NAACP has stood for all these years and work even harder to achieve the ultimate objective – a more inclusive and just society? Just a thought!