Some American Legion members in South Carolina who went to court to right an old racial wrong shouldn’t be allowed to press their case, a lawyer for a top state political leader said Tuesday.
In Greenwood, a World War I memorial erected decades ago still lists the community’s fallen soldiers separately, as “colored” and “white.”
The mayor wanted to change that and list them alphabetically, but he couldn’t because of a state law, passed in 2000 amid furor over removing the Confederate flag from the State House dome. The law requires two-thirds approval of the General Assembly to change any historical monument in the state.
Last year, five American Legion members went to court to challenge that law. But at a hearing Tuesday in Greenwood, an attorney for House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said the groups shouldn’t be allowed to overturn the law commonly referred to as the Heritage Act simply because they don’t have the political power to get a bill through the Legislature.
Attorney Tracey Green noted other cities have won permission from the Legislature to change historic markers. North Augusta moved its war memorials to a new park and Spartanburg was given permission to move a statue of Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan.
Lucas was named as a defendant in the case because not long after the Confederate flag vote, he issued a statement saying he did not want the S.C. House taking up any Heritage Act issues.
Armand Derfner, the lawyer representing the American Legion members, said the Legislature has no business in a local matter like this – something on the level of setting parking fines or bar closing times. Also, he said, the state is violating the free speech of the city and the group by not letting them change a monument that embarrasses them.
“When they have to face friends outside, people say – ‘You have that awful statue. What kind of a racist are you?’ That is real injury,” Derfner said.
Derfner also said the Legislature has become a bottleneck, pointing out it would not allow the Citadel to take down a Confederate flag from a chapel even through the college’s board voted to move it.
The American Legion members filed their lawsuit after the Legislature voted last summer to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds entirely.
The judge presiding over Tuesday’s hearing did not rule immediately, but he noted the case concerns a law that has outlived its original purpose.
“I am somewhat aware we are dealing with an ironic situation where the Heritage Act was passed in order to protect the flag which is no longer on the State House grounds,” Circuit Judge Frank Addy said.
Other cities also have World War I monuments separating soldiers by race, and there have been discussions about changing the name of Tillman Hall at Clemson University, named for avowed racist and former Gov. Ben Tillman, who praised the lynching of blacks.