Any discussion of the Charleston Rifle Club’s disappointing choice to double down on its racially exclusionary ‘blackball’ policy must begin with the acknowledgment that private clubs and organizations have the absolute right to admit or deny whomever they choose. This entitles said groups the right to exclude women, blacks, gays, Jews, or any other classification of people they see fit. As private organizations, this is their constitutional right and prerogative.
Whether one agrees these are good policies to have, the nomination of Dr. William Melvin Brown III as a potential member to the Charleston Rifle Club gave the club an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that its membership policy was not racially exclusive, despite its historical reputation. Its rejection of that opportunity, first in denying Brown membership and again in affirming the process that denied him, confirms that it is indeed a “whites-only” membership club that embraces that status even under public scrutiny.
According to club member Jimmy Bailey Jr. in a recent Post and Courier article, a majority of club members (60 percent) wanted to eliminate the initiation process embedded in the by-laws that allowed members to anonymously exclude applicants for any reason they desired. Unfortunately changing the bylaws requires a supermajority vote, which the members in favor of change could not muster.
When the Rifle Club membership voted last week not to change its bylaws, it was a de facto embrace of a discriminatory policy. While not exclusionary on its face, the vote was essentially a proxy on whether the club would continue to exclude black applicants.
Some sympathy is due to the 60 percent that were in favor of change; they joined a club that by design was created with exclusionary rules that were very difficult to change. Think of the law our state legislature passed making it incredibly difficult for future generations to remove Confederate monuments from public properties around the state.
The criticism then should not be that the Rifle Club must be a racist organization, although its retention of this policy may lead some to make this overly broad assumption. The lament should be that under the intense spotlight of city, state, and even national attention (and maybe because of it), a significant portion of club members would still rather retain a discriminatory membership policy, than change the bylaws enabling that policy. Put more simply, they treasured their ability to maintain their own traditions over opening the door to a rule change that might one day have allowed a black member.
What does it say about our community that we still accept and even patronize clubs that stubbornly adhere to racist traditions? And where does this choice leave this new generation of club members who advocated for their friend and clamored for change?
In a much, much better place. Not only has an important dialogue begun, but now there is no question about where the club and other members stand on a very important issue. There are several other clubs in Charleston that only have white members (and quite a few that only have black members as well). Many churches of both races are the same way. But in many institutions, the color line has never been tested, and were someone of a different race to attend or apply, they would be warmly received.
Amazingly, according to several members of the club who sponsored Brown, he was the first black applicant ever to apply for membership at the Rifle Club and thus the first to be rejected. Whether this is true, if there was a question before on where the club stood on matters of racial exclusivity, there isn’t one any longer.
The larger question for many, particularly those in pursuit of racial justice, inclusivity, and equal opportunity for all, is: Does Charleston aspire to be a racially inclusive society of the type envisioned and described by Dr. Martin Luther King? Or on the anniversary of the Emanuel Nine massacre, do we continue to condone, excuse, and defend those who adhere to racist or discriminatory traditions? Do we shrug our shoulders in the face of continued bigotry when we see it, or do we speak out and continue to advocate for change?
A significant number of Rifle Club members may have written the latest chapter in this ongoing debate, but it need not be the final one. If the moral arc of the universe truly bends towards justice, as Dr. King once wrote, then it is only a matter of time before the individuals who advocated for Melvin Brown, supported his membership, and voted for change prevail in their very worthwhile cause.
We owe it not only to them but to all who are discriminated against in our presence to continue the dialogue and continue striving for the more-inclusive community we aspire for Charleston to be.