COLUMBIA, S.C. — A state agency is clamping down nine months after complaints about the NAACP boxing in a statue of George Washington at its annual King Day at the Dome rally on the Statehouse steps.
People requesting to use the Statehouse for events now have to read and acknowledge state Budget and Control Board rules that say they can't obscure visibility or access to any part of the Statehouse grounds or its monuments.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People erected a three-panel backdrop around the Washington statue on the Statehouse steps. The civil rights group said at the time it was there only as a backdrop and not intended as an affront to Washington. Its annual Statehouse rallies are part of a decade-long protest of the Confederate flag that flies there.
The state has more compelling issues to be worried about, said Dwight James, the state NAACP's executive director. He said the barrier protected the statue and has been used for several years.
The state's response, James said, is "an example of extravagant preoccupation with a non-issue at a time when the energies of the General Assembly would be better spent concerning itself with the polarized economic and racial climate of the state and why the State continues to allow the most obvious symbol of racism, the Confederate stars and bars, to occupy the most prominent position on the statehouse grounds."
The State House Committee was briefed on the changes at a meeting earlier this week.
Sen. Harvey Peeler, the panel's chairman, said the NAACP backdrop "brought the situation to a head." The state "needed some agreement with people using the Statehouse grounds that they would not obscure, damage or deface the monuments," the Gaffney Republican said.
Republican State Sen. John Courson of Columbia said the rules needed to be clearer. "I can't imagine any organization wanting to intentionally for any reason impede a view of George Washington," said Courson.
Courson has overseen the erection of monuments to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the military and African-American history. He said the monuments need to be visible at all times. "I think those are important monuments to our heritage and it's important for people to see them without the view being interrupted in any way," Courson said.
Meanwhile, Budget and Control Executive Director Marcia Adams told Peeler's committee that a long mothballed Capitol complex security system will be put to work as early as January.
The system was installed in 2008 and briefly put into service before then-Gov. Mark Sanford ordered the state police to stop manning posts that supported its operation. Sanford said there was little threat of a terror attack at the Statehouse, a gate could be easily circumvented and the money needed to be spent elsewhere.
It turned into a political spat between Sanford and some Statehouse leaders. With Sanford gone, the system is being turned back on — but at a cost.
The $6 million system relied on a type of access card with batteries that interacted with sensors to raise guard arms to enter a sprawling garage beneath the Capitol complex.
Without the cards, barriers would rise from the roadway to block access. Adams said the batteries didn't last as long as expected and that the system had technical glitches. So the state will have to spend about $32,500 to issue new cards to enter the garage and buildings.
"If it's there, we need to make it operational or take it down," Peeler said.
Rep. Rita Allison, a Lyman Republican, said it's "a shame to have that much money invested in a system that is sitting there and working for the people here."