THAT'S LAUDERDALE

Today's progressive activists fit right in at Penn Center

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 17, 2013 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left, and his associates talk about the civil rights movement at Penn Center on St. Helena Island in the 1960s.

THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

  • What: S.C. Progressive Network retreat at Penn Center

    When: Saturday and Sunday

    Featuring: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who will speak at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by an informal question-and-answer session. The retreat also will feature a roundtable discussion on challenges facing the state, and a fish fry with entertainment by Jane Sapp and Dave Lippman.

    Details: Go to scpronet.com or contact the network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

St. Helena Island's Penn Center is such a peaceful place, it's hard to appreciate the riptide of righteous indignation that has flowed for years beneath its quiet oaks.

It was born as an educational and social experiment at the dawn of freedom from slavery 151 years ago.

A century later, the campus served as a retreat for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leadership of the Civil Rights movement.

This weekend, the dreams and angst of social activists will again ring through the halls of Penn when the S.C. Progressive Network holds its annual retreat at the place where it was created in 1996.

A new generation will show once again that the business of rattling the cages of the status quo is not for the timid.

Taylor Branch reported in his book "At Canaan's Edge" that the disagreements among King's lieutenants was so stressful that one time Andrew Young fainted in the Savannah airport after leaving Penn.

Stephen S. Howie's book, "The Bluffton Charge: One Preacher's Struggle for Civil Rights," tells how dangerous it was for whites to interact with blacks in the 1950s. Even sneaking over to the Penn Center, about the only place whites and blacks could gather in this state, was risky.

Harriet Keyserling wrote in "Against the Tide" about Penn under executive director Courtney Siceloff and his wife, Elizabeth: "Most of white Beaufort hated Penn and treated the Siceloffs, including their young children, like lepers."

Today, S.C. Progressive Network director Brett Bursey thinks South Carolina's leadership is "morally bankrupt." He said South Carolina has turned so far to the right that even left-wing radicals are middle of the road.

He appreciates Penn's past. He graduated from Beaufort High School in 1966 and came to Penn a few years later as a social justice worker with the Southern Student Organizing Committee.

But he is returning for the grassroots organizations that make up the network to frame an agenda for the future. Medicaid expansion, ethics reform and voting rights are top targets.

It galls Bursey that the state turned down $1.4 billion next year in federal money to expand Medicaid. As a result, he said, 330,000 of the poorest South Carolinians will get hammered.

"There's no rational reason we didn't take the money," he said. "It's spiteful. They're going to kill people next year because of their ideological extremism. I'm mad."

He said racial segregation and the Vietnam war created uprisings because they presented horrible realities.

"I think we have another horrible reality that needs an uprising," he said.

Beneath the silent oaks.


IF YOU GO

What: S.C. Progressive Network retreat at Penn Center

When: Saturday and Sunday

Featuring: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who will speak at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by an informal question-and-answer session. The retreat also will feature a roundtable discussion on challenges facing the state, and a fish fry with entertainment by Jane Sapp and Dave Lippman.

Details: Go to scpronet.com or contact the network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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