`Polite People' Spar Over Signs

In South Carolina, Confederate flags, bumper stickers, and campaign posters draw fire

By

A CLOSE observer of political signs in Charleston, S.C., will have noticed that the Mendel Rivers posters along the state highway have disappeared.

That name has a ring in Charleston. Longtime Republican Congressman Mendel Rivers, as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee from 1965 until his death in 1971, presided over a military buildup in the city's naval and air bases that once accounted for one-third of local wages.

His son is still very much in the Republican primary race for the First Congressional District. But the state highway department determined that his campaign signs were too clever, hence distracting. Moreover, in a state right of way, they were illegal.

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Illegal? said the Rivers campaign. Then the six other GOP hopefuls should remove their roadside signs as well. In fact, after removing its own signs, the campaign nudged the process along by tearing down 700 rival signs. The signs went right back up. So on Tuesday, the Rivers campaign filed a lawsuit directing the state highway department to do its job and enforce the law.

``At 30 days in jail and a $100 fine for each offense and, say, 500 signs up, that's 40 years in jail and $100,000 in fines,'' says Rivers campaign manager Arthur Rashap. ``In a sense, it's not about signs, but about the integrity of people who know the law.''

It's also about a campaign in which there are yet no deep disagreements over values. All seven GOP candidates support term limits, less government, conservative values. Hence the flap over signs - a bid to claim even slightly higher moral ground.

Elsewhere in the city, the signs speak louder. Take the competing bumper signs you'd notice if not too distracted by roadside campaign posters: ``Save the Males'' and ``Shave Shannon's Head.''

In a federal courthouse here, Shannon Faulkner has been taking on The Citadel, one of two publicly supported, all-male military colleges in the country. The Citadel first accepted Ms. Faulkner into its freshmen class last year, then revoked her acceptance. ``They told me I was qualified,'' she said. ``But then when they found out I was a girl - the way I was born - they didn't want me.''

``We tried to defend the diversity of higher education in the state of South Carolina and the value of single-sex education for men as well as women,'' said Citadel spokeswoman Judith Fluck.

The issue for a Charleston teenager is simpler: ``She lied to get in; that's a violation of the honor code. She should not be a cadet.'' But if she does get in, he adds, ``at least she should have to shave her head.''

Closing arguments ended last week. A ruling is expected next month. In the meantime, United States District Judge C. Weston Houck has given the school until next week to prepare a contingency plan to admit women.

Another sign casts a long shadow in Charleston - the Confederate Battle flag that still flies over the state capital in Columbia. The state legislature came close to a compromise on how to remove the flag with honor, but bogged down in procedural tactics the last day of the session this month. A threatened national economic boycott by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has yet to materialize.

``The South gets unfairly stereotyped on this issue,'' one state official says. ``We are a polite people who don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities, but we always want to honor that which we have genuine emotive ties to.''

Back in Charleston, the boycott threat attracts attention. The recent decision to close the Charleston Naval Base is expected to cost 40,000 jobs in the city. And without the base that Mendel Rivers built up, any threat to tourism is taken seriously.

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