COLUMBIA (AP) — A documentary that asks whether black and white South Carolinians can face the state’s racially discriminatory past and lead the nation to reconciliation debuted Sept. 7 on South Carolina Educational Television.
The documentary was the brainchild of John Rainey, a Camden attorney, Republican activist and philanthropist who died in March at age 73. He proposed the idea after the presentation of another of his projects, the bronze statues titled “Reconciliation” of two Camden natives: Hall of Famer Larry Doby — the first black baseball player in the American League — and Bernard Baruch, a Jewish financier and presidential adviser. The 2013 ceremony is featured in the documentary.
Eighteen months in the making, the film was nearly finished when nine black parishioners were gunned down in June at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston. The white 21-year-old man charged in the killings had displayed his hatred in photos holding the Confederate flag. Within a month, the Civil War battle flag that had flown on Statehouse grounds since 1961 was sent to a museum.
The film, which had portrayed the flag as an obstacle to racial harmony, was reworked to incorporate the recent developments that gave the project a new urgency, its creators say.
“Now more than ever, we need to talk,” the narrator says at the opening of “A Seat at the Table,” which aired on Labor Day.
“It had to be included because it did bring the eyes of the world to South Carolina, and it seemed as though a window had opened for the possibility of reconciliation and frank discussion,” said producer Betsy Newman.
Also featured prominently in the film is the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, based at the University of Mississippi, which Rainey, Newman and others with the film visited last year. Efforts are under way to replicate its “welcome table” concept at the University of South Carolina.
“It’s a work in progress,” said William Hubbard, a USC board member and former president of the American Bar Association.
If the state can follow the example of the families of the Mother Emanuel victims, who offered forgiveness to the accused killer just two days after the slayings, “the sky is the limit” for South Carolina’s future, Hubbard said.
Founded in 1999, the privately funded institute named for former Mississippi Gov. William Winter “teaches people how to disagree well,” said associate director Charles Tucker.
The institute’s organizers go into communities where they’re invited to try to heal a divide, whether it’s racism, classism or other discrimination. Currently active in 16 communities in Mississippi and three in New Orleans, the organizers bring together volunteers from all sides of the divide to talk — and, perhaps more importantly, to listen — to each other and build relationships.
“Everything said in the circle is confidential,” Tucker said. “We convene a safe place to help them have those difficult discussions and learn about each other, to face their fears and face their ignorance.”
Sessions generally involve 25 volunteers and last about 90 minutes. The first step is for the volunteers to examine their own prejudices and how they originated. How long the sessions continue depends on the situation, he said.
Tucker and others with the institute visited the University of South Carolina this summer, a year after the filmmakers’ visit to Mississippi.
Bud Ferrillo, an assistant director of “A Seat at the Table,” said launching the institute will probably require between $500,000 and $1 million.
“Now is our time,” said Ferrillo, who also collaborated with Rainey on “Corridor of Shame,” the 2005 documentary on the plight of South Carolina’s neglected, rural schools. “The door is open for South Carolinians inspired by the grace of Charleston to begin the dialogue we’ve avoided for 300 years.”