JUST LIKE THE woman who shinnied up the flag pole and tore down the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s front lawn, and the vandals across the state who have splashed paint on statues of Confederate generals, the self-proclaimed “artists” at Winthrop University who used the tactics of white supremacists to condemn a notorious white supremacist need to be arrested and punished.
The artist-vandals who call themselves the Association of Artists for Change said we should question “why this artwork is offensive and not the building itself,” and there’s an easy answer to that question: Tillman Hall — or rather, the name of the building, along with that creepy giant portrait of our brutal former governor inside of it — is offensive. But it is legal.
What the students did last week was not.
The difference between art and crime is permission, and the artist-vandals did not have permission to fill 18 black stockings with dirt to resemble human figures — one, they said, to represent each lynching victim during the reign of Gov. Benjamin Tillman — and hang them from trees outside the hall that bears his name. They did not have permission to erect a sign declaring their lynching scene “Tillman’s Legacy.”
The artist-vandals need to be charged because even if you are breaking the law as part of a political protest, and even if your cause is just, you’re still breaking the law. And when you break the law in a very public way, officials who might have looked the other way — because you didn’t deface or destroy public property, because you didn’t intend to intimidate — don’t have that option.
But that shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, because the idea behind the vandalistic artwork has a great deal of merit.
A 2000 state law says that no state or local property “dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event” can be “relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered” without approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, which both as a matter of routine refuse to give. That means Winthrop officials cannot rename Tillman Hall, no matter how much they might like to. It means Clemson officials cannot rename their own Tillman Hall. It means The Citadel must continue to display a Confederate flag in its chapel — its chapel.
Read my previous columns on the Heritage Act
Worse, far worse, the Heritage Act means cities and towns can’t change their minds about which parts of their history they choose to celebrate. For the city of Greenwood, the law means it can’t install new, integrated plaques to replace the ones on a war memorial that segregates the names of those killed in World War I and World War II.
I’ve suggested before that communities that don’t want to keep celebrating certain parts of our past should erect signs explaining that the Legislature forces them to keep segregating our war heroes and in other ways celebrating that which they prefer not to celebrate. That is, they should find a legal way to achieve their goals. (That’s what the Legislature needs to do with that statute of Mr. Tillman on the State House grounds as well, though obviously without the dig at itself.)
If students and professors really want to do something about their schools’ legislatively mandated homage to Mr. Tillman, they should stop engaging in unlawful acts of protest, and stop demanding that university officials do things that state law prohibits, and instead ask those officials to do things that are perfectly within the law.
There’s nothing in the law to stop Winthrop or Clemson from posting signs explaining why it would not honor Mr. Tillman if it had the choice. For that matter, there’s nothing to stop the schools from commissioning artists to design a more dramatic way to draw attention to their disgust with the forced nomenclature.
Has anyone even asked them to do that?
Maybe university officials wouldn’t want anything quite as gut-wrenching as the vandal-artists’ lynching scene. Or maybe they would.
Benjamin Tillman was not simply a vile human being by the standards of 2016. Benjamin Tillman was a vile human being by the standards of 1890. In a society where nearly all white people took as an article of faith that black people where inherently inferior, Benjamin Tillman was an outlier.
Mr. Tillman led a militia that terrorized and killed former slaves in the Hamburg Massacre, and bragged frequently that “we shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes.” As a U.S. senator, he gave speeches across the nation urging white people to prepare to respond with violence if black people tried to claim the rights promised us all under the U.S. Constitution.
Nor did he reserve his brutality for black people: He earned the name “Pitchfork Ben” when he threatened to impale President Grover Cleveland on a pitchfork. He was censured by the Senate for assaulting another senator on the Senate floor.
I’m sure some legislators would want to retaliate if Winthrop sponsored an artistic venture that highlighted the racist brutality of our former governor, particularly if it pointed out that the Legislature is forcing the school to continue to honor him in brick and mortar.
But I doubt many would have the stomach to actually follow through once they realized that would mean having to defend Benjamin Tillman — who is, and even in his time was, indefensible.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.