1. The Provocation
[Longshoremen] like to see themselves as rough and ready individuals, and that is the image that they project both to outsiders and to one another. It would be a mistake not to take this seriously, for no image of self can be maintained unless one is willing and at least marginally able to demonstrate when challenged that he has the attributes that he advertises.
—Willie Pilcher, longshoreman and anthropologist
January 2000 was a precarious time in South Carolina. The state was perched on the edge of change while clutching tenaciously to history and tradition. It was a canary in the coalmine of our national political life. In spite of its reputation for backwardness, South Carolina pointed the way to unprecedented political divisiveness, economic inequities, and cultural cruelty for the rest of the nation, the way we willingly followed for the decade to come.
That January’s critical events began on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the biggest civil rights protest in four decades and certainly the biggest in South Carolina’s history. After six months of escalating media coverage of the state’s political polarization not unlike the kind our entire country would soon suffer, more than 46,000 people converged on the state’s capitol building to demand removal of the Confederate flag that had flown over the building since 1961. It was flown then to signify defiance to federal civil rights laws. Though Confederates had not been able to muster more than 7,000 for a counterprotest to the NAACP-sponsored march, they received equal if not more media time in the ongoing debate over “heritage” vs. “racism.”
South Carolina’s tiny organized labor force flexed its civil and labor rights muscle in support of the march. The most noticeable support came from the wealthiest and blackest union, Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association in Charleston. Ken Riley was the newly elected president of the small local with 600 permanent and 400 casual workers, almost all black. The master contract that covered all East Coast ports provided high wages and, therefore, healthy dues payments to the union. The local chartered buses to take protesters from Charleston to Columbia to attend the rally.
A week earlier, when Charleston’s popular white mayor Joe Riley organized a protest march to Columbia, an enthusiastic group of some twenty ILA members with bright T-shirts and signs joined in. Twice the mayor’s staff reminded them to move to the back of the line and quiet down because they were drawing attention away from the mayor.
After a second day of this treatment, union leader Ken Riley called off the union’s participation in the march. With his usual aplomb, Riley let the insulting treatment of the mayor’s staff roll off his back as just another one of those things that black people learn to tolerate in Charleston. With thirty years of successful service running Charleston—more than half the black union leader’s life—the mayor and his staff knew the limits of what a politician could get away with among his own constituents, especially black ones.
The handful of buses the union paid for to provide transportation to the demonstration in Columbia was nothing compared to the construction project the union was undertaking. Riley’s leadership team was in the middle of planning a $6.5 million building to replace the one down the street which the city was displacing with a new bridge. Such an expenditure was a financial leap of faith for the union, whose members decided to foot the cost of a substantial community hall and make it available for wedding receptions and other celebrations, meetings, and demonstrations. The union hall would become the center for progressive political action from the Democratic Party to grassroots community agitation for years to come and the space in which both the strongest promises and worst betrayals in modern South Carolina history would be forged.
But just days after the 46,000 protesters in Columbia dispersed to every corner of the country, Ken Riley and his local found themselves in the fight of their lives right in their own backyard: the Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston. This event would make the national and international news, too, but Riley didn’t have the NAACP’s media machine to back him up, so keeping it in the national eye would prove to be a challenge.
There had been forebodings. One was the State Law Enforcement Division’s (SLED) Lt. Buster Edwards’s visit to Ken Riley at the union hall. Edwards and Riley had developed a professional understanding during those tough times when the chicken companies tried to go nonunion at the port, as they were in their factories upstate. SLED had agreed to make Edwards a liaison to the local, in no small part because he was black, he was personable, and he could build rapport quickly. Now, whenever the union was going to picket or demonstrate at any of the terminals, Riley would let Edwards know how many people would be there so SLED wouldn’t have to turn out more police than necessary—which they both knew would just be a provocation—but there would be enough police presence to keep everything in order.
“I thought I ought to warn you of something,” Edwards said, getting down to business.
“What’s going on?” Riley asked.
“Well, I just got a call, and you’re not going to believe this… You know that Nordana trouble you guys’ve been having?”
“Sure, you know we’ve been picketing them every couple of weeks, ever since they went nonunion a few months ago,” Riley responded. “But we’ll get it worked out. We’ve been talking with the Ports Authority and the company.”
“Yeah, but there’s another ship coming in next week,” Edwards said. “Yep,” Riley confirmed. “We’ll have the usual thirty, maybe fifty folks out there with signs. We got the permits already. It’ll be fine; no big deal.”
“Well, it’s gonna be a big deal,” Edwards said.
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s gonna be six hundred police out there to meet you guys,” Edwards said slowly. “Not five hundred ninety-nine, but six hundred exactly.”
“WHAT?” Riley said. “For what?”
“That’s exactly what I said when I was told. I can’t tell you what’s going on, but there’ll be six hundred police there when that ship comes to port.”
Riley had a hard time believing Edwards. Maybe he had bad information. Maybe it was an intentional rumor meant to scare them off. It was so outrageous he didn’t give it any more thought. Until the afternoon of January 19.
On his way to the hall that day, Riley stopped at the port’s offices to endure another futile negotiating session with State Ports Authority officials, Stevedoring Services of America, known simply as SSA, the company that hires and supervises the work of the union longshoremen, and Nordana, the shipping line that until recently had always hired union companies to work their ships. SSA, one of the largest global logistics firms in the world, hired all of its longshoremen out of the Local 1422 hall . But Nordana was tiny compared to its mega-container ship competitors and was having trouble competing on their scale. To reduce its freight-handling costs Nordana had dropped SSA and contracted with a nonunion stevedoring firm owned by Georgetown businessman Perry Collins.
Collins promised Nordana that his company could hire nonunion longshoremen to unload its ships at the old navy yard in North Charleston, outside the jurisdiction of the State Ports Authority and the union, but Collins’s plans had evaporated. Meanwhile workers had been protesting every Nordana ship that came to port at the Columbus Street Terminal, and Nordana’s clients were getting nervous.
That morning, sitting at the port’s offices negotiating, Nordana officials weren’t willing to change their minds and Collins’ nonunion workers were still unloading the ships for half the wages. The union’s three months of picketing and protesting had not changed the company’s position. Riley walked out of the fruitless and frustrating talks.
As lunchtime approached, Riley ran some errands near his home in West Ashley and headed back across town to the union hall around 3 p.m. He saw buses passing the on-ramp as he approached I-26. At first he thought they were full of tourists, the stock and trade of the other mainstay of Charleston’s economy besides the port. But as he caught up to the buses, he saw the gold state seals on their sides.
“Oh my God,” he thought. “Those buses are coming for us!”