You may have read Clif LeBlanc’s story today about the Capital City Club’s 20th anniversary, and why that’s of some importance to our community.
As, in Hunter Howard’s words, "the unofficial chairman of the ‘Breakfast Club’" — and yes, I eat there most mornings, as Doug can attest from having been my guest — I was asked to comment on what I thought the club meant to the community. That meant showing up at 7:30 this morning (WAY before my usual time) to address the rather large crowd gathered there to mark the anniversary.
Some folks asked for copies of my remarks. In keeping with my standard policy of not wanting to spend time writing anything that doesn’t get shared with readers, I reproduce the speech below:
So much has been said here this morning, but I suppose as usual it falls to the newspaper guy to bring the bad news:
The Capital City Club is an exclusive club. By the very nature of being a club, of being a private entity, it is exclusive.
There are those who are members, and those who are not. And even if you are a member, there are expectations that you meet certain standards. Just try being seated in the dining room without a jacket. And folks, in a country in which a recent poll found that only 6 percent of American men still wear a tie to work every day, a standard like that is pretty exclusive.
But it is the glory of the Capital City Club that it changed, and changed for the better, what the word “exclusive” meant in Columbia, South Carolina.
Once upon a time — and not all that long ago — “exclusive” had another meaning. It was a meaning that in one sense was fuzzy and ill-defined, but the net effect of that meaning was stark and obvious. And it was a meaning by no means confined to Columbia or to South Carolina.
Its effect was that private clubs — the kinds of private clubs that were the gathering places for people who ran things, or decided how things would be run — did not have black members, or Jewish members, or women as members. Not that the clubs necessarily had any rules defining that sense of “exclusive.” It was as often as not what was called a “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which was the title of a 1947 film about the phenomenon.
Forty years after that film was released, good people in Columbia were distressed to look around them and see the effects of such agreements in our community. A black executive originally from Orangeburg, who thought he was going home when his company sent him here, was unable to do his job because he could not get into a private club. It was noticed that for the first time in recent history, a commanding general at Fort Jackson was not extended a courtesy membership by a local club. He was Jewish. More and more such facts were reported in the pages of The Columbia Record in the mid-’80s. The clips I’ve read were written by my colleague Clif LeBlanc, who is here this morning.
These stories mostly ran before I came home to South Carolina to work at The State in April 1987, so I can claim no credit for them.
As editorial page editor of The State, I can tell you that the unstated policies of private clubs are an unusual, and even uncomfortable, topic for journalists. The reason we write about government and politics so much is that we feel completely entitled and empowered to hold them fully accountable, and we have no problem saying they must do this, or they must not do that. But whether a private club votes to admit a particular private citizen or not is something else altogether. You can’t pass a state law or a local ordinance to address the problem, not in a country that enshrines freedom of association in its constitution. (I hope the attorneys present will back me up on that — we seem to have several in attendance.)
But the Record did everything a newspaper could and should do — it shone a light on the problem. What happened next depended upon the private consciences of individuals.
A group of such individuals decided that the only thing to do was to change the dynamic, by starting a new kind of club. One of those individuals was my predecessor at the newspaper, Tom McLean, who would be known to that new club as member number 13.
I spoke to Tom just yesterday about what happened 20 years ago, and Tom was still Tom. He didn’t want anybody setting him up as some sort of plaster saint, or hero, or revolutionary.
He wanted to make sure that he was not portrayed as some sort of crusader against the existing private clubs at the time. As he noted, he and other founders were members of some of those clubs.
What he and the other founders did oppose — and he said this more than once, and I notice the statement made its way into Clif’s story this morning — was, and I quote:
“Arbitrary, categorical exclusion based on race, religion or gender.”
Yes, there was a moral imperative involved, but it was also common sense. It was also a matter of that hallowed value of the private club, personal preference. Tom, and Carl Brazell, and Shelvie Belser, and I.S. Leevy Johnson and Don Fowler and the rest all chose to be members of a club that did not practice the kind of arbitrary exclusion that they abhorred.
And here’s the wonderful thing about that, what Tom wanted to make sure I understood was the main thing: By making this private, personal decision for themselves, they changed their community.
Once one club became inclusive, other clubs quickly followed suit. Something that no law could have accomplished happened with amazing rapidity.
The measure of the Capital City Club’s success is that the thing that initially set it apart became the norm.
I’m like Tom in that I’m not here to say anything against those other clubs today, now that they are also inclusive. But the reason I was asked to speak to you this morning was to share with you the reason that if I’m going to belong to a club, this one will always be my choice:
It’s the club that exists for the purpose of being inclusive, the club that changed our community for the better.
I’m proud to be a member of the first club to look like South Carolina — like an unusually well dressed South Carolina, but South Carolina nevertheless.
What a written speech doesn’t communicate is my efforts to punch up the recurring joke about the club’s dress code, such as my lame attempt to do the David Letterman shtick where he pulls on his lapels to make his tie wiggle. I did that when citing the Gallup poll. Then, on that last line, I looked around at the assembled audience, which was VERY well dressed. It was a way of saying, "Don’t y’all look nice," while at the same time gently teasing them about it.
After all, those of you who are in the 94 percent who have put the anachronistic practice of wearing neckties behind you probably think the whole thing is pretty silly — a bunch of suits getting together to congratulate themselves on how broadminded they are.
But you’re wrong to think that, because of the following: Such clubs exist. They existed in the past, and they will exist in the future. People who exercise political and economic power in the community gather there to make decisions. They have in the past, and will in the future. Until the Capital City Club came into being, blacks and Jews and women were not admitted to those gatherings. Now, thanks to what my former boss Tom and the others did, they are — at Cap City, and at other such clubs.
And that’s important.