- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

ATLANTIC BEACH, S.C. Wil's Country Cafe sits 50 yards from the Atlantic Ocean beach where, on Memorial Day weekend, thousands of black motorcyclists will gather to drink beer, look at pretty girls and listen to bands.

And no NAACP boycott will stop them.

In fact, never mind the boycott, here's reality: "We've got to eat and this is the biggest weekend of the year," said Wilhemina Scott, owner of the cafe in the mostly black town. "This is when we make our money."

The 2000 Memorial Day Bike Fest will draw more than 100,000 bikers from all over the country to a 45-mile stretch of coastline called the Grand Strand, which extends from the North Carolina border south to Georgetown.

The 20th annual festival is at odds with the boycott, which took effect Jan. 1 to protest the Statehouse presence of the Confederate flag. The banner flies from atop the dome.

Although lawmakers have approved removing the flag and placing it at a nearby Confederate monument, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said that isn't good enough; the flag needs to be taken off all flagpoles.

Lawmakers who voted to remove that flag last week cited the poor public perception of the state as a primary reason to bring the flag down after 38 years.

Lawmakers last week said that the tourism moratorium, while minor in economic scope, has cast South Carolina in a bad light.

"Do we leave it on the dome and be the laughing stock of the nation?" Rep. Douglas Jennings Jr. asked his colleagues before Wednesday's vote.

"The boycott is being virtually ignored," said Ashby Ward, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

NAACP spokesman Dwight James did not return repeated calls. His group chastised the town earlier this year for its resolve to hold the bike rally despite the moratorium.

Miss Scott will stock extra food and keep her diner, a small place with 15 tables and a counter, open 24 hours to serve the revelers, who have grown in number from around 10,000 in 1980. She will sleep, when she can, on a folding chair.

What boycott?

"I'm pretty happy to have them all here, boycott or no boycott," said Brenda Bramell, who owns both The Kitchen and the Thumbs Up Lounge in this town of around 400.

"We all benefit from it, and both sides need to look at this flag issue as history. It's dead now. Besides, the flag is in Columbia, it's not in Atlantic Beach."

The view from Miss Bramell's door is nothing but palm trees and the Atlantic. It is near the end of a street divided by a palm-lined boulevard that runs from the main beach drag, U.S. Highway 17.

The boycott should not mean blacks boycotting blacks, said Earlene Evans Woods, who was on the town council for 16 years before stepping down recently.

"We all make money here on the festival, and that boycott won't affect the bike fest," Miss Woods said. "It does make money for everybody all up and down the Strand."

Media reports say the boycott has damaged the state's tourism industry, estimated at $14 billion a year. But there is little evidence of such an effect.

"The last time we looked, I think there were 120 meeting and conference cancellations," said Lou Fontana, director of communications for the state's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "And less than 5 percent of our tourism is meetings and conferences."

South Carolina lures vacationers with its beaches, mountains, golf courses and weather, noted Tom Sponseller, president of the State Hospitality Association of South Carolina. Myrtle Beach alone has 112 golf courses. People come to most of the state's cities for leisure, not conferences.

Retail sales on the Grand Strand in April increased 6 percent over last year's April revenue of $440 million, in fact.

The NAACP didn't help its own cause any when it booked 350 hotel rooms in and around Columbia for the January march it sponsored to protest the flag.

An early morning patron at The Kitchen here said any boycott should have held firm all the way down the line: "You can't contradict yourself," she said.

Perhaps Memorial Day will clarify things.

Black lawmakers first proposed a monument as part of a compromise to bring the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome in 1994. The flag most likely will come down July 1. Work began on the $1.2 million black monument next to the Capitol on Thursday.

Mr. Sponseller has another thought about special group dictation.

"Well, they wear cowboy hats in Texas," he said. "When will Native Americans get upset and say 'no more cowboy hats?' "

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