Pickens County sheriff defends actions in flag flap

By Joe Toppe

December 7, 2013

PICKENS COUNTY — Pickens County’s sheriff invoked patriotism and support of the U.S. Constitution in a flap over his decision not to lower the sheriff’s department flag in honor of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Mandela died Thursday and President Barack Obama used U.S. Flag Code to order a tribute to the foreign leader who served 27 years in prison for efforts to free South African Blacks from oppression of that government’s onetime sanctions called Apartheid. The system separated South Africa’s races and was generally understood to leave Blacks in a subservient, oppressed state.

The president ordered flags on public land to be lowered to half-staff until sunset Monday to honor the foreign leader. The period includes observances of the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Clark also wanted to honor a fallen law enforcement officer.

Clark argued Saturday that the flag lowering should be used to honor Americans only despite the advisory U.S. Flag Code’s provision that the president can order the flag flown at half-staff to honor foreign leaders.

“The flag was at half-staff for a deputy who died in the line of duty from Florence County and then we had Pearl Harbor Day coming up the next day,” said Clark on Saturday. “It struck me that we need to restrict our flag at half–staff for people who have died and have given a service to the United States. It doesn’t have anything to do with foreign heads of state personally, it’s just what I thought was best for the people who have given their lives for our country.”

Addressing the flag code, Clark said, “It goes back to the First Amendment and the reason it’s not a law,” Clark said. “It is a guideline on how to respect the flag. I am a big supporter of the flag code, but there comes a point when principles are involved and the First Amendment is involved.”

World leaders including Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Mandela’s one-time rival F.W. De Klerk all remembered Mandela for his spirit of reconciliation. De Klerk said after Mandela’s passing that South Africa’s first Black president could have given into bitterness, organized the country with one political party and shut out whites. Instead, he said, Mandela reached out to all citizens. Clinton observed the example would be a good one for Americans to consider.

Locally, many supported Clark in Facebook posts with compliments that he made the right choice.

Pickens County Democratic Party Vice Chairman Toni Vitanza was not one of them accusing the sheriff of pandering in his statements.

“Sheriff Rick Clark is an embarrassment to Pickens County,” Vitanza said. “The flag has been lowered for many non-Americans — among them Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill, the King of Jordan, and the prime minister of Israel. You are blatantly showing disrespect to both President Obama and President Mandela. Wonder why? What do they have in common? You are embarrassing our county and our state. You are insulting our intelligence.”