COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As South Carolina pulled down the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, the statue of avowed segregationist and former governor and U.S senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman watched.
Tillman’s statue seems safe for now — Republican legislative leaders, Democrats in the General Assembly and civil rights leaders aren’t calling for it to come down. But there are calls to at least make sure the memorial to Tillman tells more than the story than what is currently on there, which reads in part: “Loving them he was the friend and leader of the common people.”
“If they just put the truth on it,” South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph said in a January speech about 20 yards from the statue. “Tell them he is a killer of people. Tell them he was part of a lynch mob. Tell them he was part of burning and shooting people even after he was dead.”
But whether the Tillman statue and other monuments get any scrutiny by the Legislature next year is in question. The same law that moved the Confederate flag from atop the Capitol dome in 2000 to the pole where it was removed permanently on July 10 also has a component called the Heritage Act which requires a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to change any historical monument in the state, from the Statehouse grounds to town squares.
House Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville said Thursday that while he runs the House there won’t be any debate about the specifics of public monuments, memorials or other items that fit under the Heritage Act.
Sen. Larry Martin, who runs the Judiciary Committee where any bill to alter monuments would likely start, didn’t close the door to any discussion, but said that two-thirds hurdle is awfully high to do anything. However, the Pickens Republican thinks an open discussion on what to say on monuments like the one honoring Tillman are important.
“I’m trying to encourage folks to learn about our history — not erase it — so we can be more understanding what the cause and effect is and try not to repeat the same mistakes,” Martin said.
Tillman was instrumental in the creating of a new state constitution in 1895 that replaced a document written right after the Civil War. It concentrated power in the Legislature and its effects are still debated every legislative session. Tillman also helped establish Clemson University and Winthrop University.
Both universities have buildings named for Tillman, and a number of faculty and students have asked to remove Tillman’s name. Both schools have said they will listen to complaints about Tillman with respect, but make no promises things will change.
Clemson trustees this month called Tillman’s views and actions repugnant and promised to create a task force to review building names and the way the school presents its history. Back in February, Clemson trustees chairman David Wilkins issued a statement saying every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen and while some of the school’s historical stones are rough and unpleasant, denying them as part of the intuition’s history does not change their existence.
In 1876, Tillman joined with a conservative group of Democrats who wanted to end Reconstruction in South Carolina by winning at the ballot box. Tillman whipped up a mob that killed black Republicans and ended up serving as a voter intimidation effort in what became known as Hamburg Massacre. He moved on to become governor and a U.S. Senator and never regretted the deaths.
“The purpose of our visit was to strike terror,” Tillman said in the Senate in 1900 about the Hamburg Massacre. “And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.”
Some black lawmakers think excerpts of speeches like that should be on Tillman’s monument.
“I don’t think we can rewrite history, but we can update it,” said Rep. Joe Neal.
Monuments on the Statehouse have been changed before. When the statue to the late white U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond was dedicated in 1999 as he watched, the base mentioned his four children. Months after he died in 2003, a much older fifth child he had with a black woman came forward.
With the rest of the Thurmond family’s blessing, lawmakers passed without opposition a bill in 2004 adding “Essie Mae” to the monument’s base. The spot where they changed “four” to “five” is still evident in the marble more than a decade later.
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