Originally created 01/02/00

Rivals change sides in debate



When Michael Givens sees a Confederate flag, his emotions flow from a deep wellspring.

For him the emblem recalls a great-great-grandfather, Young H.E. Hitch, photographed with his rifle, wearing a gray uniform his wife had sewn, just before marching off with the South Carolina 16th Infantry to a war he never came home from, not even for a proper burial. Mr. Givens has letters the soldier wrote to the family he would never see again:

"I have been home at least three times since I left, but I woke up, and it was only a dream. Don't look for me until you see me at the gate."

After he was killed on patrol at Kennesaw Mountain, his son J.J. scrawled on one of the envelopes, "This is the lonesomest day of my life."

"I look at that picture, and with gray hair and glasses, it could be my dad," says Mr. Givens, 41, an independent filmmaker who lives in Beaufort, S.C. "I read his letters, and I know that Young H.E. Hitch was no different from me in the way he loved his wife and children. But his wife never got to see him come through the gate, and his little boy was lonely the rest of his life.

"He had virtually no money, and he didn't own slaves. He just wanted the same thing for his children that I want for mine: to live in a country where individuals make their own decisions about how to run their communities, raise their families and live their lives."

When Ike Williams sees a Confederate flag, his chest floods with emotion, too. For him, it is pain, anger and remembered fear.

He remembers seeing the flag on pickup trucks when he was growing up in Charleston. Black workers in the local hospital system were on strike, and white strikebreakers terrorized their neighborhoods, driving through with the flag flying and with it, racial slurs and threats.

And Mr. Williams remembers being arrested in 1962 on the grounds of the state Capitol during civil rights demonstrations. When the Confederate flag was raised on the Statehouse dome two years later for the centennial of the Civil War, it said to him that white lawmakers wanted black South Carolinians to know they were as defiant as the Confederates had been to preserve a way of life that he was trying to change.

"For me, it's a matter of black insistence and white resistance," says Mr. Williams, a former state field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and today a member of the Columbia staff of 6th District U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. "Putting that flag on the Statehouse didn't have anything to do with anybody's dead granddaddy. It was resistance to change just like it was a century ago. To have it still there in 1999 says to me, `We wish we had control over things like we did back then, when your people were slaves."'

A decade apart in age, light years apart in their perceptions of the Confederate symbol, could these men possibly trade places, try to feel each other's different response to the flag?

Professional mediators -- experts in conflict resolution -- say that's the key, on a broader scale, to settling the dispute that swirls around the Confederate banner today in South Carolina, the last Southern state to keep a pure version of the battle flag over its seat of government. The NAACP has called a tourism boycott, designed to keep people from spending money in the state as long the Confederate flag is on the Capitol.

But when Mr. Givens and Mr. Williams agreed to participate with a dozen or so others in a mediation experiment at Folly Beach last fall, neither knew trading places was part of the deal. It came up after they all had talked about their deep feelings and where they sprang from and after everyone was asked to identify something another person in the group had said resonated with them.

Six weeks later, both recalled the switch, walking around the table to the other person's chair and trying to express the other person's thoughts.

Mr. Givens jumped at the chance and chose Mr. Williams to trade with.

He was there as commander of the 5th Brigade, South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but had on his side the intellectual, articulate background of a group discussion leader -- of the League of the South, which is actively working toward another secession.

"I did understand his views," he said. "I just didn't agree with them. I could feel his anger. I could feel his outrage. I thought I could express that in spite of the fact that I believed then, and I believe now, that they are misdirected toward the flag on the Statehouse."

Mr. Williams, who can address a crowd in revival tones or indignation when he chooses, was less sure.

"When I was asked to do that, my first thought was, `I can't -- I don't have the ability to express something I know is wrong.' Then I thought, `Hell, if he's brave enough to put himself in my shoes, I'll put myself in his.' I found it very difficult, though. I could understand his love for his great-great-grandfather, but I couldn't feel comfortable that it justified his feelings about that flag. Even trying to be him, I couldn't say that easily."

Both men believed they had information that diminished the other's views, too.

But both initially believed the experience was a good one, and each impressed the other.

In fact, a prevalent feeling among participants and audience members that day appeared to be that the flag dispute could be resolved if the state could only be broken into groups of 20 people, committed to trying to understand each other better.

Facilitator Jay Rothman, whose doctorate is in international relations, came to the table with an array of credentials, including mediation between Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and involvement in peacemaking efforts in Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and South Africa. The consulting organization he directs, the ARIA Group, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, because it's his hometown, operates on his theory that conflict can be an opportunity -- a creative force rather than a divisive, destructive one.

It's a musical metaphor, but the acronym stands for antagonism, resonance, invention and action.

What Dr. Rothman does -- usually in private, rather than with an audience, including the press -- is allow people to express their antagonism, look for common ground, invent possible solutions and carry them out. Despite the name, the goal of conflict resolution is not necessarily to end conflict but to use it in a positive way to work together for change.

The South Carolina dispute was a challenge; few people around the table that day were willing even to consider compromise.

And the daylong event, an abbreviated version of the ARIA process, was actually a training exercise for professionals in the field of conflict resolution with no forum for implementing the recommendations that came from it, including large-scale community dialogs statewide.

Dr. Rothman said the day was powerful and that participants did have what he calls "a shared story."

"Where there is a shared past, there can be a shared future," he says. "Where there are shared hurts, there can be shared aspirations."

What he saw in the diverse group around the table that day was a shared sense of pain -- "a legacy of tragedy, of defeat and of hurt" -- that stretched back to the war, although it sprang from different sources.

"The resonance I heard throughout the stories was a concern for freedom, a concern for belonging and a love of place," he said.

He left with a conviction that South Carolinians could work together.

Mr. Givens went home to Beaufort, and Mr. Williams went back to the congressman's office in Columbia. Although less hopeful than Dr. Rothman, both felt a sense of satisfaction about the day in Folly Beach.

Intervening events soured that impression, however. By December, both men were frustrated.

Mr. Givens found himself writing repeated letters to the editor of his local newspaper, responding to comments about the Confederate flag and claims that it stands for hatred. Hatred and intolerance, he contended, were the hallmark of groups trying to remove the flag more than heritage preservationists trying to keep it where it is.

To one writer, who insisted that Americans should honor and respect only one flag, he found himself pointing out that the lost values the writer mourned for "were the things our Confederate ancestors fought for," and the 13 stripes on the American flag represent the original colonies, all of them slave-holding.

The other writer had insisted that "every man should be proud of his heritage, but remember that you're still a proud American first."

Mr. Givens replied: "My heritage is one of the only constant things in my life. It does not change and cannot change. As I study my diverse family history, I learn to honor and accept the deeds of the past. I cannot do the same for the future. I must always question current leadership and government. For this I am proud to be an American."

He was discouraged by an "inflammatory" ad campaign started by Sen. Darryl Jackson, D-Richland, depicting a robed Klansman on the Capitol grounds with uniformed re-enactors and the dome, with its Confederate flag, in the background.

"This ad is made from a composite ... created strictly to manipulate the public into associating the flag with evil," he said. "This is mean-spirited and breeds nothing but distrust if not hate."

In Columbia, Mr. Williams also watched momentum gathering around the state to remove the flag. Even The Citadel's Board of Visitors called for the flag to come down; cadets from the military school had fired the first shots of the Civil War.

But he was frustrated, too.

"I am so tired of hearing people say they'd be willing to have some dialog about the flag if there was no boycott, but it's made them hunker down and be stubborn," he said. "I personally have to commend the NAACP; their resolution is the only thing that has brought us into serious discussion at all.

"It's the same thing people said in the '60s when we sat at (segregated) lunch counters, boycotted and picketed -- `If you folks weren't out there marching and making trouble, we'd open it up.' Well, nothing happened until we did those things. Nothing was about to happen with that flag, either. What's wrong with these people? Logic tells me when my kids fight over a toy, all I have to do is take it away and they won't have it to fight over."

When nearly 50 of the former lawmakers who had voted to put the flag up in 1964 said it was not in defiance of the civil rights movement and urged their successors to retire it to a place of honor, Mr. Williams said he found it hard to believe them.

Were the perceptions on either side simply too deeply rooted for either man to bend?

Each thought so.

ReachMargaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.