An S.C. law that requires state legislators to approve removing any historical monument should be repealed, the leader of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus said Wednesday.
The call to change that law comes in the wake of a white nationalist protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly last weekend.
“It’s something that has to be revisited,” state Rep. John King, D-York, chair of the Black Caucus, said of the S.C. Heritage Act.
But Republican legislative leaders – who control the Senate and House – are unlikely to change the law, passed as part of a 2000 compromise to remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome to its north grounds.
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“I don’t think that there’s much appetite to revisit it,” Senate GOP Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said Wednesday.
Removing divisive symbols
The Heritage Act requires two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate to approve removing any monument in the state.
In 2015, part of the law was rewritten to allow the removal of a Confederate flag from the State House grounds in the wake of the slaying of nine black worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by a self-avowed white supremacist.
Since then, however, there has been little legislative interest in reopening the debate over controversial symbols.
Earlier this year, for example, King sponsored a bill, which failed to gain any legislative momentum, that would have banned any Confederate flag from being flown in a public building, except for museums.
“Everything that divides us that is a statue or any symbol that divides our state needs to be removed,” King said Wednesday.
Efforts to strike other controversial symbols also have failed.
For example, buildings at Clemson University and Winthrop University are named for “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a former S.C. governor and U.S. senator who was also a member of an all-white, post-Civil War militia responsible for lynching African-Americans.
King, whose district includes Winthrop, said white and black students from that school have approached him about changing the name of the building there. But changing the building’s name would require the General Assembly’s approval. “That bothers me,” King said.
Others find other historical figures from the state’s past more offensive than Tillman, who also is honored by a statue on the State House grounds.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Tuesday that the most offensive statue on the state’s Capitol grounds honors J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, according to the S.C. Medical Association.
“It should come down at some point,” Benjamin said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews.
Sims “tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology,” Benjamin said.
Not up for debate
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Senate Majority Leader Massey said violence and racism are unacceptable. “We need to be outspoken in opposition to any type of violence and hatred.”
But Massey, whose party holds a majority of the seats in the Senate, does not support changing the Heritage Act.
Neither does Jay Lucas, speaker of the overwhelmingly Republican S.C. House.
After the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds in 2015, Lucas issued a statement saying no other monuments or symbols would be up for debate. “The South Carolina House of Representatives will not engage in or debate the specifics of public monuments, memorials, state buildings, road names or any other historical markers,” Lucas, R-Darlington, said two years ago.
On Wednesday, Lucas’ office reaffirmed his commitment to his 2015 statement.
Also, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Richland, told reporters earlier this week that he doubted the movement to remove monuments would spread to South Carolina.
‘Forces are dug in’
Still, the Heritage Act has created tension between state and local governments, and not always over the Civil War.
The city of Greenwood, for instance, wants to change its monument honoring its fallen World War I soldiers. Now, those soldiers are listed separately on two plaques – one listing the “colored” dead, another listing the “white” dead.
Last year, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, introduced a proposal to allow local governments to decide about their monuments without the approval of state legislators. Jackson’s proposal would have cleared the way for Greenwood to substitute a single new plaque, listing all the city’s World War I dead together, regardless of their race.
The bill did not get a subcommittee hearing, Jackson noted Wednesday. Given that, Jackson isn’t optimistic that lawmakers will revisit the Heritage Act.
“This is South Carolina,” Jackson said. “The forces are dug in even deeper. I don’t think that the legislators on the other side, particularly on the Republican side ... want to do anything to revisit it.”
Staff writer Cynthia Roldán contributed.
Controversy at the State House
Several monuments at the State House honor the Confederacy or other controversial figures
The Confederate Soldiers Monument stands at the corner of Main and Gervais streets, honoring Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. The women of the Confederacy are honored in another State House statue as is Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton of Columbia, later an S.C. governor and U.S. senator. Markers also honor both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee.
J. Marion Sims monument
The statue honors the “father of gynecology,” according to the S.C. Medical Association. However, Sims used enslaved African-American women to experiment on medically.
‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman
The statue honors an S.C. governor and U.S. senator who also was a member of an all-white, post-Civil War militia responsible for lynching African-Americans.