BY PHIL NOBLE
We all get tired of listening to politicians ‘just talking’ – especially around election time. It seems that they seldom really do anything, and almost never anything that truly has a lasting and historic impact.
But bold and decisive political leadership really can make a difference and change the history of a city or state. Consider the following ‘tales of two cities’ – one historic and one recent – one about decisive action and the other about bold leadership.
First tale: Charleston and New York. In the early 1800’s, the ports of New York City and Charleston were about the same size, with about the same levels of shipping and cargo transportation. One was the largest port in the North, the other the largest port in the South – and they were locked in a fierce competition. The competition was to determine which was to be the major transit route for the growing waves of people, animals and cargo that were beginning a flood into the vast expanse of the newly opened Mississippi River valley. It was a race for the future.
The civic and business leadership of New York bet on the idea of the Erie Canal, a vast 363 mile waterway with 36 locks linking New York City to the Great Lakes. The New Yorkers moved fast; the Erie Canal was first proposed in 1807, construction began in 1817, and it was competed in 1825.
In Charleston and South Carolina, the powers that be had a different idea; they bet on a Charleston to Louisville railroad. Their plan was to create a rail line from the port of Charleston through the Appalachian Mountains to link up with the Mississippi River at the booming river ports of Cincinnati and Louisville. It was a good plan and the politicians began to talk about how they could do it – and they talked and talked and talked.
It was only in 1836 that the new railroad was officially chartered, largely because of political disputes with the local and state politicians; the board was loaded up with politicians like former Governor Robert Y. Hayne and John C. Calhoun. In the end, there was too much talk and not enough action or money, and the South Carolinians’ dream petered out in foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
All that remains today of their plan are the unfinished Stumphouse Mountain Tunnels a few miles above Clemson. Of late, the principal use of the tunnels has been to culture the famous Clemson Blue Cheese.
While our South Carolina folks talked, the New Yorkers worked. And as they say, the rest is history.
Second tale: Atlanta and Birmingham. In 1950, Birmingham and Atlanta were the same size; Atlanta had a lead of only 5,000 people with a population of 331,000. Located only 150 miles apart, they were locked in a civic completion to see who was to become the ‘Capital of the South’. They competed fiercely, and every football game, new addition to the skyline, or new corporate announcement added fuel to the flames of this heated civic rivalry.
But the competition was not decided based on dollars or economic growth. The competition was decided in the hearts and souls of the civic leaders in their differing response to the then exploding issue of race.
Birmingham had a police commissioner named Bull Connor who before the national media turned his police dogs and fire hoses on his city’s defenseless children marching for their civil rights. Atlanta had a mayor named Ivan Allen who proclaimed to the national media that they were ‘the city too busy to hate’. When their native son Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, despite some grumblings, the city fathers organized a huge dinner in his honor.
While Birmingham burned, Atlanta had a banquet. And again, the rest is history.
Think of the difference today: Charleston and New York; Birmingham and Atlanta.
In both cases, the difference was bold and decisive leadership. It took leaders who were willing to take a chance, to take political risks and to bet on the future.
We in South Carolina today face a competition as well, but it’s not a competition with another city or state or even another country. We are in a competition between the status quo and reform; a competition between political complacency and bold, decisive leadership.
As the two tales above demonstrate, bold leaders can make a difference – and, given the immense challenges our state is facing today, we could really use a few.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and serves as the President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. email@example.com www.SCNewDemocrats.org