"Push America Back from the Brink of Senseless Tribalism"

The NAACP Response to the Confederate Battle Flag at the South Carolina Capitol

In July 1999, the National Convention of the NAACP voted in favor of a tourism boycott of South Carolina. They were responding to the state’s continued display of the Confederate Battle Flag on the dome of their capitol building.[1] The boycott was proposed by the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.[2] At the time, South Carolina was the only state to fly the Confederate flag itself at its capitol, although Georgia and Mississippi had incorporated parts of it into their own state flags.^3

The flag hadn’t been there for long. It was originally raised above the South Carolina Capitol in 1961, purportedly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and was then left in place. Several failed attempts to bring it down had been made since this initial gesture.[3]

Even though the resolution to boycott could not be officially ratified until the NAACP’s October meeting, the effects of the proposal came almost immediately. The boycott made national headlines and the actions of the NAACP and the effort was well-documented by the Associated Press (AP), whose reports were often reprinted in Black newspapers. Some Black publications, such as the Winston-Salem Chronicle and Atlanta Daily World, also undertook original coverage of the boycott.

Following the NAACP convention, the Winston-Salem Chronicle reported, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) canceled its convention in Charleston, S.C. The national president of the SCLC, Martin Luther King, III, stated “Many people try to justify the display of the Confederate flag by saying it is a symbol of Southern heritage. But in reality, the flag began to be displayed conspicuously as a symbol of resistance to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision.”[4] He went on to “urge every organization and corporation who loves justice to join this effort to push America back from the brink of senseless tribalism.”[5]

The boycott also received the support of civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, a South Carolina native.[6] By early August, NAACP leadership was already coming up with ways to specifically target companies who supported pro-flag lawmakers. According to a report by the Associated Press, the group collected the financial disclosure forms of fourteen senators and seven House members, most of whom supported keeping the Confederate flag above the capitol dome. The forms listed political contributions, income, and business connections.[7]

In mid-October, the tourism boycott was officially ratified, mobilizing “all [NAACP] chapters and members to not visit or spend dollars in South Carolina until the flag is removed,” according to NAACP spokeswoman Sheila Douglas.^9 Associated Press reports quantified the impact of the boycott: an AP report reprinted in both the Winston-Salem Chronicle and Atlanta Daily World stated that following ratification, several groups from across the country canceled meetings and events originally planned to be hosted in South Carolina. This included the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which had planned to bring 7,000 people to Columbia for a four-day meeting. That event alone, the article stated, would have contributed an estimated $500,000 to the South Carolina tourism industry.^10

On January 20, 2000, the Los Angeles Sentinel covered a march of several thousand demonstrators on the South Carolina Statehouse, demanding the Confederate flag be lowered from the dome. They also demanded the implementation of an official state holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. The demonstration was organized by the NAACP in collaboration with the National Urban League and other religious, social, and academic groups, according to the Sentinel. Some of the protesters held signs reading “Your heritage is my slavery.”[8] 16-year-old Heather Showman, a white high-school student who was attending in support of the flag’s removal, told the Sentinel, “We need to get this flag off the Statehouse and promote racial unity.”[9]

At the end of the month, the Sentinel printed an AP report claiming that Columbia, South Carolina had already lost $2.6 million to the boycott. Both the NAACP and local tourism officials stated that over 90 groups had canceled or moved events they had planned to host in the state. Charleston was estimated to have lost $2 million in business revenue and Hilton Head Island, another popular site for tourists, lost around $1 million. The NAACP predicted that South Carolina would lose $43 million total, based on what groups told the NAACP they would have spent in the state had they not canceled their events. However, those numbers came only from groups who had canceled in October, and NAACP state director Dwight Hames estimated the real impact would be even greater.[10]

Quick support for the boycott also rolled in from local and national authorities. Black churches called on shoppers to avoid shopping in South Carolina during the Easter holiday.[11] The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s executive committee voted in favor of canceling future NCAA-sponsored events unless the flag was removed from the dome by August 11th, 2000, the date of the committee’s next meeting.[12] But the flag’s presence on statehouse grounds—and the NCAA basketball moratorium—would last for more than a decade.

South Carolina lawmakers attempted to appease both the NAACP and Confederate sympathizers by proposing ways to remove the flag from the dome without eliminating its presence from the capitol entirely. The Senate President Pro Tempore John Drummond suggested ceasing the flying of the flag and housing it in a glass case in the Statehouse rotunda instead, but nothing came of this proposition.[13] On May 10th, 2000, the same day that South Carolina celebrated its first official Confederate Memorial Day, the state House voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome and have it placed in front of a memorial to Confederate soldiers on statehouse grounds.^17

This solution was unsatisfactory to many on either side of the issue, as the AP captured in a piece reprinted by the New Pittsburgh Courier. According to the article, both staunch flag supporters and members of the House Black Caucus tried to kill the bill. Flag supporters wanted to keep the flag on the dome, while many Black legislators were disturbed that the flag would be put in such a prominent place.^18

Earlier that same day, the monument had been vandalized, with the words “Take it down, don’t put it here” spray-painted on its base. Protesters stood on the statehouse lawn and set Confederate and Nazi flags ablaze as they shouted “no compromise.” A spokeswoman for Governor Jim Hodges condemned the activity, stating, “We are up here trying to bring people together. It’s unfortunate that extremists on both sides of this issue are trying to drive people further apart.”^19

The Atlanta Daily World highlighted the rift in the Black community that came as a result of this vote. NAACP President Kwesi Mfume mocked the Black state lawmakers who supported the compromise at that year’s NAACP annual meeting, calling them “weak-kneed, shifty-eyed, back-bending legislators.”[14] “Until the flag is removed from a place of sovereignty,” Mfume stated in his opening address. “There will be no compromise on the Confederate flag.” According to the report, “his remarks were met by applause and laughter.”[15]

Black newspapers also showed how different politicians approached the issue. The New Journal and Guide reported that while in South Carolina campaigning for the 2000 election, George W. Bush told the NAACP to stay out of the flag debate. At a Labor Day festival in Simpsonville, S.C., Bush said, “My advice is for people who don’t live in South Carolina to butt out of the issue.”[16] This statement was met with cheers from the crowd. Rev. H. S. Singleton, President of the Conway, SC branch of the NAACP described the statement as Bush, “wooing the white voters of South Carolina to support his candidacy.”[17]

When Democratic candidates campaigned in the state ahead of the 2004 election, the Winston-Salem Chronicle made sure to reprint an article from the Associated Press describing two candidates’ views on the controversy. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, both seeking the Democratic nomination, had said they opposed the Confederate flag flying in front of the Statehouse, but “stopped short of endorsing the [NAACP] boycott.”[18] According to the report, Lieberman said he wanted to speak to those in opposition to the flag “to get a broader range of opinions on the boycott” and planned to stay in homes, not hotels, while in South Carolina.[19]

The editorial sections of Black newspapers captured the lack of consensus among African-Americans over the value of the boycott, publishing articles representing varying opinions on the issue. For instance, The National Center for Public Policy Research (a conservative news outlet) organized Project 21, a platform to promote the viewpoints of moderate and conservative African-Americans.[20]

Kimberly J. Wilson, a member of Project 21’s National Advisory Board, wrote a scathing article attacking the NAACP’s boycott. In her editorial, Wilson compared the NAACP to her grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s: “Both were once strong and proud and both have been laid low by mysterious internal forces.” She berated the boycott for imposing on the time that “many Black people traditionally take their ‘let’s go home and see the family down south’ vacations,” saying she could not “imagine anyone calling up Big Mama or Aunt Pearl to say. ‘Sorry, we can’t come this summer. The NAACP has declared a boycott.’”^27 This type of article that made specific references to Black American cultural experiences would really only find an understanding audience in a Black newspaper.

Wilson further criticized the boycott for taking money away from Charleston, “a treasure trove of Black history and heritage, something that the NAACP apparently has forgotten.” She went on to write,

It’s been argued that the boycott is important because of the symbolism involved. I’m a little tired of symbolic gestures… I know what the Confederate flag represents… I certainly wouldn’t be sorry to see it banished from the State House, but Black America has some very serious non-symbolic problems that should be addressed first.^28

Among the problems she listed were teen pregnancies, high infant mortality rates, the education gap, drug use, and the AIDS epidemic. Her article was published in the New Pittsburgh Courier[21] as well as the Michigan Chronicle under a different title"^30

Earl Ofari Hutchinson had similar criticisms of the boycott, writing in an editorial in the Winston-Salem Chronicle that “at the same moment the NAACP saber-rattles state officials over a worthless flag, it’s deafeningly silent on the black poverty, school dropout, infant mortality, and victim of violence rates [among Black people] that are among the worst in the nation.”[22]

But op-ed pages in the Black press also carried many full-throated defenses of the NAACP’s move. Another article published by the Winston-Salem Chronicle declared,

The NAACP’s points about the flying of the Confederate flag are valid. If a swastika was flying in front of the New York legislative building and Jews raised a stink, no one would say a peep. The NAACP should be given the same type of respect.[23]

While the boycott brought attention to the issue of how the Confederate flag was revered by South Carolina, it did not bring about its downfall. One by one, groups that had initially participated in the boycott broke ranks. In 2009, the Atlantic Coast Conference brought its baseball tournament back to South Carolina after initially respecting the boycott. According to the Winston-Salem Chronicle, Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, stated in response to this decision, “Initially, they supported the cause of respect, decency and equality for all people. Have they resorted to their old
policy where they didn’t always feel that way?”^33

Ultimately, the flag was finally lowered from its position in front of the Statehouse in the wake of new scrutiny following the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting. The Confederate memorial it flew alongside still stands as of this writing.

Olivia Haynie


Associated Press. “Candidates to ‘study’ S.C. Boycott.” Winston-Salem Chronicle, February 6, 2003.

Associated Press. “Jesse Jackson Supports Boycott of South Carolina.” Atlanta Daily World, August 1, 1999.

Associated Press. “South Carolina Feeling Effects of NAACP Boycott.” Los Angeles Sentinel, January 27, 2000.

Atlanta Daily World. “Boycott of South Carolina Urged.” July 18, 1999.

Davenport, Jim. “Protest of Confederate Flag in South Carolina.” _Los Angeles Sentine_l, January 20, 2000.

Hettena, Seth. “NAACP Board Votes to Boycott South Carolina.” Winston-Salem Chronicle, October 21, 1999.

Hutchinson, Earl Ofari. “NAACP’s Confederate flag obsession.” Winston-Salem Chronicle, March 14, 2000.

Hunt, Donald. “Colleges skipping South Carolina.” Philadelphia Tribune, March 28, 2000.

Iacobelli, Pete. “NAACP condemns ACC taking event to S.C.” Winston-Salem Chronicle, May 28, 2009.

National Center For Public Policy Research. “Project 21: A History.” Accessed on July 14, 2023. Available at https://nationalcenter.org/project-21/.

New Journal and Guide. “‘Butt out,’ Bush tells NAACP on South Carolina flag issue.” September 15, 1999.

New Pittsburgh Courier. “NAACP bets on compromise.” March 11, 2000.

Shepard, Paul. “NAACP Races To Vote.” Atlanta Daily World, July 16, 2000.

Strope, Leigh. “NAACP ups the ante in S.C. boycott.” Philadelphia Tribune, August 6, 1999.

Strope, Leigh. “South Carolina House votes to remove Confederate flag.” New Pittsburgh Courier, May 27, 2000.

Wilson, Kimberly J… “NAACP’s boycott is futile approach to minor issue.” Michigan Chronicle, September 1, 1999.

Wilson, Kimberly J… “On the NAACP and boycotts.” New Pittsburgh Courier, August 28, 1999.

Winston-Salem Chronicle. “Don’t Put NAACP Down.” April 25, 2002.

Winston-Salem Chronicle. “SCLC cancels S.C. conference.” July 29, 1999.

  1. Atlanta Daily World, “Boycott of South Carolina Urged.” ↩︎

  2. Atlanta Daily World, “Boycott of South Carolina Urged.” ↩︎

  3. Hunt, “Colleges skipping South Carolina,” Philadelphia Tribune. ↩︎

  4. Winston-Salem Chronicle, “SCLC cancels S.C. conference.” ↩︎

  5. Winston-Salem Chronicle, “SCLC cancels S.C. conference.” ↩︎

  6. Associated Press, “Jesse Jackson Supports Boycott of South
    Carolina,” Atlanta Daily World. ↩︎

  7. Strope, “NAACP ups the ante in S.C. boycott,” Philadelphia
    . ↩︎

  8. Davenport, “Protest of Confederate Flag in South Carolina,” Los
    Angeles Sentine
    l. ↩︎

  9. Davenport, “Protest of Confederate Flag in South Carolina,” Los
    Angeles Sentine
    l. ↩︎

  10. Associated Press, “South Carolina Feeling Effects of NAACP
    Boycott,” Los Angeles Sentinel. ↩︎

  11. New Pittsburgh Courier, “NAACP urges Easter boycott.” ↩︎

  12. Atlanta Daily World, “NAACP Vows To Expand South Carolina
    Boycott.” ↩︎

  13. New Pittsburgh Courier, “NAACP bets on compromise.” ↩︎

  14. Shepard, “NAACP Races To Vote,” Atlanta Daily World. ↩︎

  15. Shepard, “NAACP Races To Vote,” Atlanta Daily World. ↩︎

  16. New Journal and Guide, “‘Butt out,’ Bush tells NAACP on South
    Carolina flag issue.” ↩︎

  17. New Journal and Guide, “‘Butt out,’ Bush tells NAACP on South
    Carolina flag issue.” ↩︎

  18. Associated Press, “Candidates to ‘study’ S.C. Boycott,”
    Winston-Salem Chronicle. ↩︎

  19. Associated Press, “Candidates to ‘study’ S.C. Boycott,”
    Winston-Salem Chronicle. ↩︎

  20. National Center For Public Policy Research, “Project 21: A
    History.” ↩︎

  21. Wilson, “On the NAACP and boycotts,” New Pittsburgh Courier. ↩︎

  22. Hutchinson, “NAACP’s Confederate flag obsession,” Winston-Salem
    . ↩︎

  23. Winston-Salem Chronicle, “Don’t Put NAACP Down.” ↩︎