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Riley’s larger-than-life legacy

First Posted: 12:46 am - December 9th, 2015

Phil Noble - Contributing Columnist



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“Until the arrival of Joe Riley, Charleston was a sleepwalking, underachieving city with its eyes fastened on a past where its citizens began the most calamitous war in American history. The story of Joe Riley is the story of the renaissance of a city restored to greatness by the dauntless vision of a single man.” — Pat Conroy

So begins the program of “A Tribute to Mayor Riley – 40 Years of Shared Success,” an elaborate dinner presented this week by The Post and Courier with hundreds of Charleston and South Carolina luminaries, including Vice President Joe Biden. Fittingly, the event was to raise funds for the International African-American Museum.

It is impossible in one column, or even in one book such as Riley’s biography, commissioned by the Post and Courier and distributed to the evening’s guests, to catalog all of his many achievements over the last 40 years. Instead of even trying to assemble a list, allow me a personal reflection on the radical changes that I have seen take place in this city that I have come to love and call home.

Conroy provided a vivid one-sentence description of the city that my family and I found when we moved here in 1972. It was a surreal city, seemingly locked in a historic time warp with a bizarre mindset that had no interest, indeed near-contempt, for anything that passed for modernity.

Now 40 years later, the city is radically different. Of all he has done, I think there are three great legacies that Riley will leave.

The first is physical; the city has been transformed. Charleston in 1972 was like the aged Southern belle who had fallen on hard times — a victim of time, lost wealth and faded beauty. You could see a hint of what once was magnificent but was now just sad. An apt phrase was that the city was “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” And so it was.

Riley’s revitalization strategy was to leverage large, world-class projects and events, both public and private, to spur economic growth and enhance the physical beauty and livability of the city. The first project was the Charleston Place Hotel. His plan was ridiculed as it called for building a luxury five-star hotel in what was essentially a very questionable neighborhood noted for high crime and rundown stores with worn-out merchandise.

Today, the hotel anchors lower King Street, one of the most fashionable shopping districts in the county.

The next big project was Waterfront Park, completed in 1990. The park stretches over 1,000 feet along the shoreline of the Cooper River and provides a stunning view of the harbor, Fort Sumter and the new Ravenel Bridge. Thousands of tourists and locals flock to the park every day to leisurely stroll, play and enjoy the view.

Next was the Visitors Center, a new museum, the baseball park, upper King Street revitalization and on and on it goes. And these are just the most high-profile projects among literally dozens of others — both large and small — that have had such a huge cumulative impact.

The second big change Riley brought was an opening of the city to new people, new ventures and new attitudes. Again, there are dozens of examples, but the premier example is the Spoleto Festival. What began in 1976 as the brainchild of Riley and composer Gian Carlo Minotti has grown to become one of the nation’s premier performing arts festivals.

With the later addition of Piccolo Spoleto, which provides literally hundreds of free and low-cost events, Spoleto is now a 17 day festival with nearly 1,000 events that brings tens of thousands of people from around the world to the city and pumps tens of millions into the local economy.

And Spoleto was also a catalyst for a veritable creative explosion in the city. Today, there is a film festival, wine and food event, music, art or cultural festival virtually every week. All of which have attracted a whole generation of new, largely young people who have led to a large and vibrant creative culture and now an emerging digital startup culture as well.

Riley’s third and I believe greatest legacy is what he has done with the most difficult of all issues — race.

Charleston’s dominant historic legacy has been that of slavery and the Civil War. The city was the leading port for slave traders — an estimated 50 percent of all African-Americans today can trace their roots to relatives who came through the city in chains.

The city was where the Civil War began — and despite Appomattox — the city Riley inherited had never really surrendered. It had simply closed in on itself and built a fortress to wall off its resistance.

The first breach in the wall came with the hospital strike of 1969, which escalated to become one of the links in the chain of local civil rights struggles that began with the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and continued until Dr. King’s death during the garbage workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968.

It was against this racial backdrop that Riley was first elected in 1975 at the age of 32. And in a city full of symbols, Riley’s choice of Septima P. Clark to hold the Bible and swear him in as mayor exploded over the city like the first shot at Fort Sumter.

Clarke was one of the premier civil rights leaders — not just in Charleston, but throughout the South.

This quiet, mild-mannered schoolteacher had traveled all over the South in the inter-war years creating a network of Citizenship Schools that taught literacy skills as a means of empowerment for black folks. Dr. King later mobilized Clarke’s network into the civil rights movement and he called her the “Mother of the Movement.” In recognition of her important role, King took her to Oslo with him when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Again, space does not allow even a cursory listing of all that Riley has done for racial reconciliation in the city and state — the most visible example of which was when, in 2000, he led 600 people on a 100-mile march to Columbia urging that the Confederate flag be taken off of the state capitol dome.

The great irony is that the flag did come down, but only 15 years later, after the killing of the Emanuel Nine.

In this city that for some is the symbol of the historic legacy of the evils of race, the Emanuel Nine families’ forgiveness and the spirit of compassion and unity shown by the city demonstrated Riley’s greatest legacy.

He took a city that was a symbol of racial evil, violence and hate and turned it into a city that showed the world that love, compassion and reconciliation is possible.

Surely, this is Joe Riley’s greatest legacy to the city – indeed to the world.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.

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Phil Noble

Contributing Columnist

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