By Tom Still
COLUMBIA, S.C. – On the state capitol grounds in South Capitol stands a statue that should be far more offensive in the early 21st century than anything erected in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
It’s a monument to Benjamin Tillman, a former governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina who was known as “Pitchfork Ben” due to his racist views, support for Jim Crow laws and wink-and-nod tolerance of lynch mobs.
Tillman was also a populist, was described as South Carolina’s “first New Dealer” by his supporters, and helped create Clemson University – which is no small reason why his statue still stands.
Down the road in Charleston, a monument in honor of John C. Calhoun towers over Marion Park. There was no greater defender of slavery in his time than Calhoun, who once described the immoral practice as a “positive good” for owners and slaves alike.
Because of his other legacies, however, Calhoun was historically significant. In fact, he was named in 1957 as one of the five greatest U.S. senators of all time by a Senate committee headed by future President John F. Kennedy.
History is complicated, as the nation is rediscovering in the wake of deadly events incited by white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville, Va. People who by today’s standards are racists or worse were heroes in their day, respected by contemporaries who often shared their misguided beliefs.
It’s a pretty easy call to remove a Confederate memorial in Madison, where the only Southern soldiers were prisoners of war at Camp Randall, but quite another to remove monuments in parts of the country where history intersects with family and community memories.
Such is the case in South Carolina, where museums such as Charleston’s Old Slave Mart stand in stark contrast to monuments that preserve the memory of what many Southerners still call the “War Between the States.” It’s a reminder that history is a story told from many angles, some accurate and others not, in the hope that an unvarnished and often inconvenient truth emerges over time.
During a visit to South Carolina in the days following the Charlottesville tragedy, I encountered two peaceful but nonetheless contrasting street events. In both cases, white supremacists had picked public places to advance their views and were met by those who wanted no part of the hatred.
The clash of history with present is not just an American phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, for example, statues to Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston have come under fire for their ties to Britain’s imperial and slave-trading past. One solution offered across the Atlantic is to keep such statues but to add plaques that give a fuller account of history.
It’s anyone’s guess how South Carolinians will resolve their conflicted history – after all, the state only recently removed a Confederate flag from its capitol – but the debate may prove more constructive than not.
If a state that led the secessionist charge in 1860 and repressed African-Americans for a century thereafter can change, so can others.
That change would best come about through a debate that doesn’t fall into a trap extremists often set: Banning symbols the extremists hijack, driving those symbols underground and making them marble or cloth martyrs for a false cause.
History must be taught to successive generations; it is not genetically transmitted. Dispelling hatred among the few requires resolve and education by the many. In the absence of national leadership to the contrary, that responsibility falls, more than ever, to those who set examples that resonate close to home.