Hillary Clinton confronts the past in South Carolina 'corridor of shame'

Clinton is promising a partnership with officials that would provide investment to ‘lift up’ impoverished parts of the state – a plan warmly met by voters

Eight years ago, the man who would go on to be the first black president came to this decrepit school in rural black South Carolina with a promise to change things. He did. The 1896 building he visited, where the elevators didn’t work, the heating was inadequate and a roofs leaked, has been donated to the local historical society, and a slick new junior high school of gleaming brick has been built five minutes down the road. Better teachers and test scores followed, but the work statewide is far from finished.

If Hillary Clinton is sworn into office next January, her path to the White House will have run through the so-called “corridor of shame”, a stretch of impoverished, largely black school districts running along Interstate 95. The school Barack Obama visited in 2008, JV Martin junior high school, is but one. As she vies with Bernie Sanders for minority voters, Clinton has put the strife of such poor minority communities front and center in her campaign, speaking with civil rights leaders, meeting with younger activists and visiting Flint, Michigan, in the wake of the predominantly black city’s water crisis.

While some residents have voiced skepticism about Clinton’s devotion to their interests, expressed as it is in the middle of a surprisingly close Democratic primary, South Carolinians have welcomed her message. In their state, economic inequality stems from a history of racial inequality, rather than the other way around, as Sanders’ team often argues.

The question for many voters here, as Clinton appears poised to clinch her party’s nomination, is whether she’ll follow through on promises to the underprivileged communities like Dillon empowering her.

In one of Clinton’s very first visits to the state since her 2008 campaign, she pledged the “corridor of shame” would become a “corridor of opportunity” under her presidency. Earlier this month, she visited a school that runs along the corridor, Denmark-Olar elementary school. Since then she’s spoken of the experience along the trail, for instance in Kingstree this week.

Mariah Chatman
Mariah Chatman Photograph: The Guardian

“Parts of it are not usable because the walls are crumbling,” she told the audience of the school on Thursday. “And that’s where we send our children?”

Clinton promised a partnership with state officials that would provide investment to “lift up this part of South Carolina” – a promise warmly met by voters at the event. Apostle William Dunmore, the 65-year-old dean of the Kingstree Christian Academy, praised Clinton’s “long history of helping minorities”.

Mariah Chatman, a 56-year-old public school teacher, was similarly enthused: “People who enter politics, they need to care about people and she really cares!”

Still, the portion of Clinton’s speech dedicated to “the corridor” was given just a few minutes of airtime in a longer speech. And some feel the positive messages whitewash entrenched problems.

Bud Ferillo, a former state deputy lieutenant governor and the director of a documentary on the issue, was underwhelmed.

“She’s late to the subject in South Carolina, but I take any support for our rural schools from anybody at anytime,” he said from his office on the campus of the University of South Carolina, where he serves as coordinator for the SC Collaborative for Racial Reconciliation.

“There’s always room on the caboose of a train if you don’t get on at the engine room.”

Ferillo’s documentary made national headlines in 2007, when Obama, then a senator, called him to ask for a meeting with every administrator and executive featured in the film. Obama then sat down with local administrators for hours, impressing principals like Rodney Cook of JV Martin – the school most prominently featured – with his command of the academic situation and a knack for remembering student names.

The senator’s sustained attention attracted a media circus. “Just the publicity itself made the people in the county say, ‘Well, we need to do something!’” Ray Rogers, Dillon school district’s superintendent, recalled on Friday.

Ray Rogers with Barack Obama at the old junior high school.
Ray Rogers with Barack Obama at the old junior high school. Photograph: The Guardian

The publicity inspired the community to pass a penny sales tax to finance the replacement of the old, dilapidated school, and Obama used it as an example of how states would benefit from his stimulus package, even flying one student to Washington to tout the case.

Rogers holds such reverence for Obama that, when we return to his office after the tour, he can produce dozens of photos from the president’s visits. The most famous, by internet archive standards, is one of Rogers standing in a shabby hallway of the old school, pointing at some misery just beyond the camera’s focus while a younger Obama squints his displeasure.

When change finally did come to JV Martin, it wasn’t a moment too soon for Rogers, who has been working in the school system since 1987. At 66, he is the only superintendent involved in a 1993 school equity lawsuit who’s still on the job. The suit charges the state with failing to provide a “minimally adequate” education to the state’s poorest children.

In 2014, Rogers and his cohort finally got the ruling they were seeking, after more than 20 years of court battles and receiving the personal attention of a sitting president. But even that victory came by the grace of a single vote in the state supreme court, and thus far, no money has been distributed to schools as a result.

And so Dillon’s success remains something of a one-shot wonder, born of a presidential contender’s attention to a well documented disgrace.

“He was as good as his words to me,” Ferillo said of Obama’s campaign promises. “The last things he said to me the night of the South Carolina primary was: ‘I won’t let you down. I will follow through.’ He looked me in the face and I knew I was looking at a man I could trust.”

Cotton fields in Kingstree
Cotton fields in Kingstree. Photograph: The Guardian

Of course, Obama’s work at Dillion helped the candidate himself, too. In the months that followed, he swept the state’s primary with 55% of the vote to Clinton’s 27%. Close observers suspect Clinton has learned something from his reform-studded victory, noting that she has started pointing to her early work with the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington.

But for so many other South Carolinians, nothing is more meaningful than what she’ll do after a victory, while their children remain trapped in struggling schools by an accident of geography.

“For those schools to be the only places they could go to get an education in America, that’s a function of the hand that they were dealt centuries ago as slaves,” Ferillo said, “and now as the children and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of slaves. They’ve gotten a raw deal from America for a long time. This cannot, must not, continue.”

But back at Clinton’s “corridor of opportunity” event, near the cotton fields that have haunted the state for generations, Jack Scoville, the mayor of Georgetown, said the problem does continue, and will grow worse without leaders’ real commitment to solving it. He praised Clinton as a “hardworking serious lady”, but said he hopes she’s up to the task.

“Education in this state, especially for minorities,” he said, “has been intentionally neglected.”

Contributor

Lucia Graves in Dillon, South Carolina

The GuardianTramp

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