Racial discrimination still exists in Charleston, South Carolina. This is not a surprise to most people. What was remarkable and newsworthy about the Charleston Rifle Club’s recent rejection of Dr. William Melvin Brown, a prominent local black physician, was the club’s willingness to adhere to its exclusionary practice despite the will of several members who privately and publicly advocated for that practice to change.
This behind the scenes view into how difficult it is to purge institutional racism is the real disturbing takeaway from the recent Rifle Club story. The introduction of a new generation of members, even ones who would prefer to be part of a racially inclusive club, does not automatically transform a previously discriminatory institution into one that is not. It takes the concerted effort of an organization’s leaders and its members to eliminate discriminatory policies and to become truly inclusive. Without this commitment, an organization will not change. This is the lesson that the conscientious dissenters at the Charleston Rifle Club are now beginning to find out. It is a lesson I began learning along with Dr. Brown over 30 years ago.
Dr. Brown, or “Mel,” as his friends and colleagues call him, was a classmate of mine at Porter-Gaud School beginning in the early ’80s. We continue to be close friends to this day. Not only can I vouch for his character and professionalism having known him all this time, but I can also certify that any club or institution fortunate enough to have Mel as a member would be much better off for it. Our school community at Porter-Gaud is an example of such an institution. Mel was a gregarious and enthusiastic member of the Glee Club, choir, and football team during our time as students there, and he got along well with all classmates, regardless of race. This was despite the fact that our school, at the time, had very little racial diversity. Mel and I were two of only four African Americans in our class of just over 70 students. Out of a school of more than 800 students, African-American students attending the school at the time numbered less than 10.
But a curious thing happened in the intervening years since we graduated. Porter-Gaud, as an institution, made a conscious effort to be more inclusive, both racially and socioeconomically. Minority outreach and recruitment increased at the school as did the availability of financial aid. Today, minority enrollment exceeds 14 percent. Notable African-American alumni such as Ovie Mughelli and Khris Middleton have become nationally known professional athletes and have given generously back to the school to further ongoing diversity efforts. None of this would have happened had Porter-Gaud not made the conscious commitment to diversity several decades ago. I am convinced that but not for the commitment at Porter-Gaud and schools like it, stories like those involving the Charleston Rifle Club would not even have had the chance to occur.
You see, several of Mel’s sponsors and most ardent supporters for his Rifle Club membership were former classmates and friends from his high school days. Having grown up together, played on sports teams, and now having children who also attend school together, these friendships were allowed to form despite racial differences. There is a possibility that if not for the existence of diversity in schools like ours, these friendships may never have come to pass. Some of these same classmates sponsored and supported me as a social member of the Charleston Country Club several years ago, a club that also did not have an African-American member at the time. Unlike the Charleston Rifle Club, that club admitted and warmly welcomed me as a member. The difference between that reception and Mel’s reception from the Charleston Rifle Club could not be more stark.
The Charleston Rifle Club obviously cannot change as an organization unless its practices regarding membership do. As currently constituted, only six members (out of a reported membership of 800) can “black ball” any potential member for any reason at all. If that reason happens to be the maintenance of a racially segregated club, so be it. If six members of a club can willfully ignore the will of the majority, then that club will continue to be racially discriminatory. Any proposal to change these rules, including one supported by a circulating petition, simply becomes a proxy for the vote to desegregate. At least the Rifle Club is finally confronting that issue.
Despite the necessary attention this has garnered, with more sure to come, most Charlestonians recognize that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. Although many members of the Charleston Rifle Club feel the same way, it will take much more for discriminatory policies to change. Our community is much better for organizations and institutions which have already made the commitment to such change, and members such as those at the Rifle Club seeking inclusivity over tradition.