Civil rights veteran Wright: ‘I can’t believe they furled that flag’

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 11, 2015

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — Friday morning as she watched a honor guard take down the Confederate flag that flew over the grounds of the S.C. Statehouse, Deedee Wright of Salisbury had a few tears in her eyes.

“It’s a grand day today,” said Wright, a civil rights activist in South Carolina during the 1960s. “… I could not believe they furled that flag.”

Wright also couldn’t help but think back to March 2, 1961, when she was among almost 190 civil rights demonstrators arrested at the State Capitol in Columbia, S.C., and thrown into jail overnight.

She was only 16 and still in high school then, but as president of the Youth Chapter of the NAACP in Greenville, S.C., Wright already was used to fighting discrimination and even being carted off to jail. She was part of the “Greenville 8” that in 1960 accompanied the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the whites-only public library in Greenville and refused to leave.

One of the things that struck Wright as she watched the Confederate battle flag’s being taken down was realizing her arrest in Columbia came just a month before South Carolina leaders first raised the flag above the Statehouse dome to mark the Civil’s War’s 100th anniversary in April 1961.

The Confederate flag remained there to represent official opposition to the civil rights movement Wright was a part of, and it didn’t come down for decades. In 2000, following substantial protests against the flag, S.C. lawmakers compromised slightly by moving the Confederate flag from the dome to a 30-foot pole next to a Confederate monument on the capitol grounds.

Friday’s action removed it permanently from display on the Statehouse grounds, and the Confederate flag was marched to the state’s “relic room.’

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., was among the protesters arrested with Wright in Columbia in 1961. He is now a minority leader in the U.S. House. Wright said a lawsuit brought against the state of South Carolina after their arrest went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the demonstrators’ favor and said they had the right to march and exercise their First Amendment rights.

Wright remembered telling her mother she was going to a meeting, not a protest. “I didn’t tell her it was out of town,” she added.

Her mother was a domestic worker at the time, and the next day’s newspaper in Greenville included an Associated Press photograph with Wright pictured in it. Her mother’s boss noticed the picture.

“She was so afraid she was going to lose her job,” Wright said.

At the jail on Bull Street in Columbia, Wright said she was separated from everyone else, “because I was mouthing off.” She had asked to see the jailer’s newspaper, which was stuck in his back pocket, and things deteriorated from there.

Acknowledging she was afraid, Wright said she was led to a cell with more hardened and dangerous women. During her overnight stay, jailers fed the prisoners dog food, grits and white bread, Wright said. Water to her cell came from a pipe poking through the floor.

During her activist days, Wright says she was arrested seven times. Her fight against discrimination continued at Clark College in Atlanta.

Wright said Friday also was a bittersweet day, because she felt sorry for protesters who didn’t fully understand the history of the flag they were trying to save.

Wright expressed admiration for S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and said other issues on race remain but one has to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

“I hope it’s a beginning,” she said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.