Not many of our readers know Elihu Spencer, so in view of the subject of this article, I need to provide a little personal background.
The Spencer family hails from the South. The first Elihu Spencer (one of many with that name) graduated from Yale in 1746 with a degree in divinity. He was sent to the “New York frontier” (and it really was) to be a missionary to the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Later, he served as a Presbyterian pastor to churches in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Jamaica Queens, New York, where he became active in the “patriot cause.” In 1764, the Presbyterian Synod of New York sent him to the Carolinas to organize Protestant congregations in support of the growing movement for independence from England.
Elihu later returned north to serve as a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, but his son remained in what is now South Carolina. During the Civil War, several Spencers were Confederate officers.
So, I view myself as a proud “son of the South.” But that does not prevent me from concluding that flying a Confederate flag on South Carolina’s Statehouse grounds has resulted in substantial economic losses for the people of South Carolina during the more than 50 years since it was first raised over the Statehouse dome. Moving the flag to the Confederate Relics Room of the State’s military museum provides a long-overdue opportunity for South Carolina to improve its economy.
It may be useful to remind ourselves that South Carolina did not remove a South Carolina flag that proudly flew over our Capitol since the devastating years of the Civil War. The flag that was removed — officially the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — was first hoisted over the Statehouse in 1962 to “commemorate” the beginning of the Civil War. That action occurred early in the tumultuous years of long-needed changes in civil rights laws and practices. The symbolic impact was arguably moderated in 2000 when, after major protests, it was relocated to a Confederate memorial on the Statehouse grounds in 2000. But that relocation did little to alleviate the formal and informal boycotts by organizations and businesses of South Carolina that still exist.
The most visible and economically destructive organized restraint on South Carolina’s economy has obviously been the NAACP-sponsored boycott and the NCAA’s prohibition against holding any pre-planned championship events in South Carolina. Many businesses and organizations respected the NAACP boycott by holding their major meetings in states where they felt that their shareholders, employees, members, customers and attendees would be more supportive. The last major NCAA event held in South Carolina was in 2002, when 14,000 people attended a sold-out basketball game in Greenville. In recent decades, North Carolina has hosted hundreds of NCAA events, sometimes at facilities that are inferior to those available in Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island and other South Carolina sites.
There have been some major economic successes since the Confederate flag was removed from atop the Statehouse in 2000. Boeing, BMW, Continental Tire, Michelin and, recently, Volvo, have created or proposed major facilities in South Carolina. Many other smaller businesses have also relocated to South Carolina. But how many other businesses decided that the all-too-common perception of South Carolina as a state living in the past outweighed the state’s many positive elements?
Now that the Confederate flag is no longer a visible focus for controversy, I am willing to make a reasonable bet that we are going to see a substantial expansion in business activity in South Carolina. Why? Our state is blessed with an exceptional array of natural and man-made resources. We have beautiful beaches, lakes, forests and mountains, and the weather to make it possible to enjoy them year-round. We have some of the best and most accessible port facilities on the East Coast. Our road and rail systems, albeit in need of repair and expansion, provide ready access to major population centers. We have towns and communities where housing is affordable and our history and environment are increasingly being protected. We have a university and technical college system that, with proper funding, can be among the best in the country in training our abundant and hard-working citizens. We have pro-business leadership, including a governor and legislature that have recently been willing to provide economic incentives that attract new businesses and encourage existing businesses to expand.
Now that the Confederate flag has respectfully been removed from the Statehouse grounds, South Carolina can capitalize on those extraordinary assets and renew its historic role as a forward-looking state.
Elihu Spencer is a banking expert with a long business history in global finance. His life work has been centered on understanding credit cycles and their impact on local economies. The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources considered reliable but the accuracy cannot be guaranteed.