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Doing the big hard right thing

Posted: March 11, 2014 9:18 a.m.
Updated: March 12, 2014 5:00 a.m.

We in South Carolina love our history. As William Faulkner said of the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Lately I have been reading a wonderful book about our state’s past -- and clearly there are lessons to be learned.

The book is “Deliver Us from Evil,” by Dr. Lacy K. Ford, and it’s about how the South, especially South Carolina, dealt with the issue of slavery from the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution until the days prior to the Civil War.

Dr. Ford is a brilliant, world renowned historian. This book, his previous books and numerous scholarly articles have won a whole shelf full of regional and national awards; the books were published by Oxford University Press in England, and the reviews have all been about as good as it ever gets.

Dr. Ford is a native South Carolinian whose family roots go back many generations. He is a Phi Beta Kappa, former chair of the University of South Carolina (USC) history department and currently vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at USC. In short, Dr. Ford is the epitome of the best this state has produced. He is world class.

What surprised me most in “Deliver Us From Evil” was how Dr. Ford clearly documented that most of the political and social leadership of the South knew and freely admitted that slavery was a bad thing -- at least in the abstract. As the title of the book implies, the problem was that they just could not figure out how to get rid of it without collapsing the whole economic, social and political system it supported. They came up with all sorts of schemes for shipping blacks back to Africa, gradually freeing old and young slaves, closing the slave trade and other strategies to “whiten” the slave holding states. In the end, nothing worked.

As you plow through Ford’s book, you can feel the growing and painful frustration of whites over 70-plus years, desperately trying to find a solution while at the same time becoming increasingly fearful for their lives and those of their families as slave rebellions -- real and imagined -- grew across the South.

In the end, they could not do the big hard right thing. And the terrible war that took 600,000-plus lives was a result. More Americans, on both sides, died in that awful war than died in all the other American wars combined. It could all have been avoided if they had done the big hard right thing.

In trying to understand the mindset and anguish of our forefathers, I began to think of parallels with issues in our time. Take climate change or global warming. Virtually every serious scientist on the planet that is not on the payroll of the oil or coal companies, agrees on three things: 1) that climate change is real, 2) that the actions of man, principally the burning of carbon fuels, is largely responsible and 3) if we don’t do something about it, one day we are all doomed to suffer.

And yet we don’t act. We just don’t do the things we need to do today to avoid great pain in the future. It reminds me of a friend of mine who smokes cigarettes and the other day he said, “Yes, I know that cigarettes will eventually kill me, but I’m not convinced that this one I’m smoking right now will do it.”

There is something within us that avoids doing the big hard right thing.

Although it’s not as big a slavery or climate change, or as personal as smoking, this state does face a big hard thing that we desperately need to get right -- fixing our education system.

What we have now is not working and if we don’t fix it, someday our state and the economic and social system that supports it (sound familiar) will be doomed. Virtually the entire leadership of this state agrees -- the politicians, business leadership, parents, teachers -- all recognize the problem.

Sure, there are lots of other issues and problems in this state, but the big hard truth is this: if we don’t fix education -- and fix it soon -- nothing else really matters.

Yes, we have a few very good schools; yes, some people get a good education and a good job; yes, there are some “world class” things that we can build on. All of this is true; but the big hard truth is this: it is not enough and our current gradual improvement is way, way too slow.

Even if you are on the right track (which we aren’t), you will still get run over by a train (the global economy) if you’re not moving fast enough.

And like the legions of slave holding politicians of the past, or the present-day politicians struggling with climate change -- we know we need big and bold change … and we need it now.

Like my friend with his cigarettes, we may not die today if we don’t fix it, but if we as a state don’t figure out how to do the big hard right thing -- one day, it will get us.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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