Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters Monday he doubts the groundswell to remove Confederate monuments will spread to South Carolina.
“We have been through those issues over the years,” McMaster said while attending a job fair in Chapin, according to a video distributed by his office. “We do things a little differently.”
The Republican governor’s comments came as the mayors of Baltimore, Maryland, and Lexington, Kentucky, announced Monday they will seek to remove Confederate monuments in their cities.
Confederate monuments are protected in South Carolina by the state’s Heritage Act. The measure, which was passed when the Confederate flag was moved in 2000 from the Statehouse dome to a nearby Confederate memorial, states that no historical monument can altered or moved without a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Violence erupted Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, when alt-right, neo-Nazi and pro-Confederate groups protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee clashed with counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and at least 19 others were injured when a car plowed intro a group of counter-protesters who were peacefully marching away from the scene of the initial violence. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio is charged in connection with Heyer’s death.
Also Saturday, hundreds of protesters faced off in San Antonio over the fate of a 118-year-old Confederate monument. And tensions flared in New Orleans earlier this year when four Confederate monuments were removed.
Lawmakers met the two-thirds majority threshold in 2015 when they voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. Their decision came after self-professed white supremacist Dylann Roof fatally shot nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, including pastor and Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Photos surfaced after the massacre showing Roof posing with the Confederate banner.
South Carolina House of Representatives Speaker Jay Lucas confirmed Monday he still stands by his July 2015 statement that he wouldn’t entertain any changes or exceptions to the Heritage Act.
The day after Lucas made that statement, Clemson University said it would form a task force to make recommendations to the Board of Trustees about changes to reflect its history, particularly in regards to race and civil rights issues.
Clemson’s announcement followed more than a year of sustained protests and discussions about whether to rename its most iconic classroom building, Tillman Hall, which was named after former South Carolina governor and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman, one of the university’s founding trustees. Tillman was an avowed racist who spoke virulently against African-Americans and advocated for lynching, pushed Jim Crow laws as governor that tamped out civil rights for black citizens. He was charged but never indicted in the Hamburg Massacre, where six black men were killed by a white mob.
When Clemson’s trustees approved the task force’s recommendations in February 2016, it didn’t entertain the notion of renaming Tillman Hall and cited the Heritage Act as the reason, saying the act gives authority to change names of historical buildings to the state General Assembly.
“The Board is bound to comply with existing law and therefore name changes were not considered,” the task force report said.
“Keeping the names of our historical buildings intact ensures important, hard stories will continue to be told and their lessons learned. A building named Tillman Hall does not celebrate Tillman’s views but serves as a reminder to all that Clemson’s history is complex and of where we have come as a university and a nation,” the report said.
A similar issue took hold in Greenville in the 2016-2017 school year when a student at Wade Hampton High School launched a campaign to rename the school, which bears the name of a Confederate lieutenant general and large slaveholder who supported the KKK.
In June, School Board members told The Greenville News they cannot change the name of the school because the Heritage Act doesn’t allow it.
Trustee Derek Lewis told the News, “I think that’s so unfortunate that a local community wouldn’t even have the ability to have a community conversation about whether or not a change is necessary without going to Columbia for permission.”
Earlier this year, York County Clerk of Court David Hamilton cited the Heritage Act when he reversed his decision to remove the Confederate flag and pictures of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from his county’s renovated courthouse.
The Heritage Act doesn’t only apply to monuments and buildings related to the Civil War. Some American Legion members have filed a lawsuit against the state because the act prevents any changes in to a monument in Greenwood that separately lists “white” and “colored” fallen soldiers from World War I. A final ruling has not been issued in the case.
Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson filed a bill last year that would have restricted the Heritage Act to state-owned buildings and property, returning the ability to make changes to other buildings, monuments or memorials back to local governments. The measure languished in a committee and did not come up for debate.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said Monday that GOP leaders who control the General Assembly might want to reconsider their position on the Heritage Act.
“In light of what is happening in the South and across the nation, the legislature may want to revisit it,” said Robertson, adding that the “burden for social justice and equality is on the shoulders of Republicans.”
Even if it remains intact, the Heritage Act won’t shield South Carolina from the strife that is occurring elsewhere over removing Confederate monuments, said Glenn LaFantasie, a history professor at Western Kentucky University. His areas of research include the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Old South.
“South Carolina is not exempt,” LaFantasie said. “”This is a national problem.”
In 2015, only 20 House members voted against removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. More than half of those dissenting lawmakers hailed from the Upstate.
Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville, said in a statement Monday he has “no regrets” about voting against the flag’s removal.
Hill said symbols like the Confederate flag “remind us of what could be, but for the grace of God. They do not define who we are today.”
Hill said the flag didn’t become an issue until then-Gov. Nikki Haley “made a national play for free media.”
The violence that took place in Charlottesville is unlikely to happen in South Carolina, Hill said. He noted how the Charleston church massacre and tensions over removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds did not result in violent protests in the state.
“White supremacists like the ones in Charlottesville want attention,” Hill said. “I do not think we should give it to them.”
Two Republican House members from Anderson County who voted against removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds — Anne Thayer and Brian White — did not return repeated messages. Another opponent of moving the flag, Rep. Tommy Stringer of Greenville County, did not return a message seeking comment Monday.
Rep. Eric Bedingfield, another Greenville County legislator who voted to keep the flag flying in South Carolina, said Monday he is focused on the state’s opioid-abuse issues and that he was “mentally not prepared” to comment on Charlottesville or on South Carolina’s handling of Confederate symbols. Bedingfield’s son, Joshua, died of an opioid overdose last year.
Rep. Joshua Putnam, a Republican from Piedmont, said his vote against removing the flag was the hardest he has made in seven years in office.
Speaking on that vote Monday, he said he remains “disappointed in the process” by which the flag came down in South Carolina . He said he believes that vote was “rammed through,” and was a break from the normal legislative process that would have allowed those against the measure to express their concerns.
“When you’re talking about something as emotionally and sensitively charged as the Confederate flag, the way and the process that you go about deciding on it can affect reactions afterward.”
Putnam condemned the violence in Charlottesville.
“It’s horrible what happened,” he said . “There is no place for that in our society at all.”
“Groups of the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis, whatever the tag you want to give them, are more powerful on social media than they are outside of that,” he said.. “There are always going to be pockets of people — repugnant, horrible people, and we must not give them a voice.”
Another Republican who voted against removing the flag, Rep. Dennis Moss, said he opposes any effort to modify the state’s Heritage Act or remove Confederate memorials in South Carolina.
“I don’t understand why they are taking them down. It is history,” said Moss, whose district includes parts of Cherokee, Chester and York counties. “They are not taking down Martin Luther King monuments.”
Characterizing Confederate monuments as racist is similar to saying “a pencil misspells words,” he said. “It is the people behind it.”