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Charleston Civil Rights Leaders Point To Gentrification In Racial Justice Debate


The police shooting of Walter Scott has brought new attention to long-standing questions of racial justice in the area around Charleston, S.C. While legal segregation is long gone, civil rights leaders there say blacks have found themselves on the losing side of economic changes, and many complain of feeling pushed out. NPR's Martin Kaste report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: North Charleston didn't even exist as a city until the 1970s, but today, it's a growing suburb built along freeways and divided highway commercial strips. Across the highway from the outlet mall is a shiny, new city hall, which has suddenly become the base for TV satellite trucks and news conferences.


CARL ANDERSON: Certainly, we're glad that everybody made it here today.

KASTE: That's Representative Carl Anderson. He's the chairman of the state legislature's Black Caucus. They're lined up behind him as he condemns the shooting of Walter Scott.


ANDERSON: We are again experiencing the results of a great divide in America, not simply a divide of race, but one of perceived power and intent.

KASTE: The black lawmakers are calling for police body cameras, but what you don't hear at this press conference is criticism of the city's white officials. Black leaders here call the police chief a good man, and there's a lot of respect for the long-time mayor, Keith Summy. Today's political reality in the Charleston area has been shaped by the work of generations of civil rights campaigners, people like Bill Saunders.

BILL SAUNDERS: And this is a picture of Rosa Parks, myself and - Rosa Parks, myself and Septima Clark.

KASTE: Saunders is 80. He fought in Korea. He was wounded at age 16, and he wears a Purple Heart ball cap. In his office in North Charleston, the walls are covered with clippings and photos of a long career fighting for racial justice.

SAUNDERS: You can see some of the demonstration against the law for blacks to be salesperson in department stores - this was in the '60s.

KASTE: He made his name organizing a big strike by hospital workers in 1959, and a key part of his strategy over the years was a radio station that rallied Charleston's black community. He thinks things improved for a while until the 1980s. Then he says something new started to happen - the city of Charleston proper became gentrified.

SAUNDERS: And most of those poor black people was pushed out of the city of Charleston into North Charleston.

KASTE: And Saunders says now that North Charleston is starting to turn into a destination for shoppers and new industries, it's happening all over again.

SAUNDERS: And now North Charleston's forcing them over out to Berkeley County because they're building up and bringing in all kinds of stuff. So the folk - poor people are still being forced out of the city of North Charleston.

KASTE: Of course, the economic growth benefits blacks, too. At the outlet mall, you see black and white customers. But Saunders and others think North Charleston's economic development has become an excuse for unfair policing. He talks about his grandson, a young man who nurses a deep resentment over how he's been profiled and pulled over by the police. Saunders says his grandson's anger makes him feel helpless.

SAUNDERS: And he's avoiding his father, me and everybody 'cause we as black men have no power to help him. There's no reason for him to even have a discussion with me about how police treats him 'cause there isn't a damn thing I could do.

KASTE: But that sense of helplessness is not shared by the new generation of civil rights activists.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, is everybody out yet?

KASTE: Outside North Charleston's new city hall last night, members of Black Lives Matter took advantage of those TV trucks to announce an ultimatum to the city council - set up civilian oversight of police misconduct and do it now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are on our way to justice right now, y'all. We get to walk in. This is what democracy looks like. We walk into a place that we own and we say what we want in order to protect our community.

KASTE: Surrounded by cameras and mics, they refused to answer any reporter's questions until everybody in their group got a chance to talk about big picture issues of racial justice, a degree of media savvy that Bill Saunders might appreciate. Martin Kaste, NPR News, North Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.