CAMDEN, S.C. — It isn’t often that one gets to hear both the strains of “Dixie” and an African drum concert in the same public square. Nor, usually, are statue unveilings the riveting stuff of storytelling.
That is, unless one happens to be in the oldest inland city, population 7,000, of one of the oddest little states in a nation of oddness.
The unlikely combo of a brass band invoking the rebel anthem and a couple of dreadlocked musicians pounding drums provided the soundtrack for an Easter weekend unveiling of life-sized, bronze statues celebrating two Camden-born national figures — African-American baseball legend Larry Doby and Jewish financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch.
The two men, an unlikely twosome not so long ago, both transcended racial and ethnic challenges that provided inspiration for subsequent generations.
Baruch, born in 1870, urged racial and religious understanding and counseled six presidents across party lines, setting an example few today seem willing to follow. Doby, born in 1923, conquered racial barriers by becoming the first black baseball player in the American League (for the Cleveland Indians) and the second African-American manager in baseball history (for the Chicago White Sox).
The sculpture featuring the two statues, brilliantly crafted by local artist Maria Kirby-Smith, is aptly titled “Reconciliation.”
The ceremony was a feast of ironies, cognitive surprises and the sort of historic gestures that permit respite from the political cynicism that dominates our day. The lineup of native-born speakers was its own commentary on the status of South Carolina’s evolution and quest for reconciliation, including businesswoman Darla Moore. Real leadership, said Moore, doesn’t happen in Washington or the state capital but in communities such as Camden where citizens embrace diversity “as a force to improve quality of life for all citizens.”
It wasn’t always so, of course — and some would argue that it isn’t yet — but art often expresses what we aspire to, and symbolic gestures count for something. Legislated correctives can do only so much in the service of racial equilibrium without the voluntary assent of willing neighbors.
The two statues, commissioned by local benefactors John and Anne Rainey, are such a gesture. Strategically placed along the town’s main drag, they depict Doby standing behind home plate autographing a baseball for Baruch, who is seated a few feet away on a park bench, his favorite perch for contemplation.
John Rainey began his own remarks with none other than Robert E. Lee. Oh dear. Must we Southerners always invoke the leader of the Confederacy’s army? But Lee had something to say about the future and reconciliation, and these were on Rainey’s mind.
Rainey recounted that after the Civil War, while president of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University), Lee urged one Southerner: “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
Almost a century and a half later, these words sound freshly minted and aimed at a state where the tea party thrives. Lee the conciliator likely would be disappointed by today’s rancorous rhetoric, which Rainey placed at the feet of “most of our leaders in the South since the end of the war, and you know who they are.”
“They have not adhered to Lee’s warning or followed his example, but instead have based their politics on division and disrespect. … They have failed us.”
Rainey, a Vietnam vet, attorney and Republican activist, who once marched to protest the Confederate battle flag atop the state’s capitol dome, has the bona fides to speak of Lee’s legacy. A great-grandson of two Confederate soldiers who surrendered at Appomattox, he also is kin to a signer of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession.
Who better to lead the charge for reconciliation than a descendant of those who started this fine mess? What will it take for South Carolina to gain recognition beyond comedians’ punch lines and the state’s benighted, racist past?
Let’s see, says Rainey, mentally checking diversity boxes: Gov. Nikki Haley is of Sikh Indian descent. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who spoke on behalf of Doby, defeated the sons of Strom Thurmond and former Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Scott is the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.
We still have a way to go, but the old Southern stereotypes don’t fit as well as they once did. Reconciliation, like evolution, is a process, not an event. And the band wasn’t just playing “Dixie.”
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.