THE PROBLEM with removing monuments to the Confederacy and avowed white supremacists isn’t simply that South Carolina has a state law that prohibits it, unless two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate give their blessing.
The problem is the larger question: Should monuments be removed?
History is written. Literally. It’s in books and on the internet, and taking down, or erecting, all the monuments in the world won’t change that.
And no, the question is not whether we want to rewrite history. Monuments do contribute a small part to telling the story of history, but only a small part. History is written. Literally. It’s in books and now on the internet, and taking down, or erecting, all the monuments in the world won’t change that.
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Attacks on actual history come in the form of teaching inaccurate versions of it in school, allowing prominent people to repeatedly misstate it without correcting them and, in countries where this is allowed, banning the books that tell it truthfully.
The primary purpose of a monument is not to educate. It is to honor. And I believe with all of my being that people in a state or community ought to be able to choose whom to honor.
But there’s this thing I just can’t get out of my mind: the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Those were the humongous statues that were carved into the sandstone cliffs of what is today Afghanistan, in the fourth and fifth centuries. They stood centuries, until one day in 2001 the Taliban decided they were idols and dynamited them to smithereens. As a Christian, I had no religious attachment to them, but the idea that these great wonders of the world could suddenly disappear because some Dark Ages throwbacks felt threatened by them … well, that was just too much for my post-Enlightenment mind to wrap itself around.
Certainly, South Carolina’s monuments to the Confederacy and to such vile human beings as Benjamin Tillman — an outlier even in his own time — will never be mistaken for great works of art. But the idea is the same.
That’s why I was so delighted by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s idea. Well, it’s not actually Mr. Tecklenburg’s idea. It’s one I’ve proposed numerous times, and it certainly wasn’t original to me. But it’s a great idea. Leave up the monuments — not that South Carolinians have any choice — but add signs to provide context.
To Mr. Tecklenberg, it’s not just about doing an end-run around the Legislature. As he told Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper last week: “I don’t believe we’ve done a good job of telling the whole story of slavery and Reconstruction and what happened there and Jim Crow. One hundred years from now, you want people to know the great lengths the white folks who were in charge around here went to try to put racial barriers back into place.”
First on Mr. Tecklenberg’s add-to-rather-than-subtracting-from list is a towering monument to John C. Calhoun, which includes the words “Truth, Justice and the Constitution” and little else. Like the fact that he provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Confederacy.
Now, I do believe that the Legislature needs to amend the Heritage Act, to allow cities and towns to make their own choices — even though they’ll make choices I don’t like. There is no more justification for the Legislature telling cities and counties they can’t move or remove the monuments that they own than for telling them how much they can raise taxes or how they can regulate land use. Which it also does. Unjustifiably.
It’s more than a little disingenuous for them to clamor for legislative action when they don’t take the simple actions that are entirely within their control.
But while cities and towns and universities and groups and individuals who want monuments toppled and roads renamed should definitely keep pressuring the Legislature to change the law, they also need to do what they already have the power to do.
There’s nothing in the law to stop Winthrop or Clemson from posting giant signs outside the buildings named for Mr. Tillman explaining why they would not honor him if they had the choice.
There’s nothing to stop The Citadel from posting a prominent sign explaining why it would remove a Confederate flag from the chapel if it could.
There’s nothing to stop the town of Greenwood from erecting a new structure next to its monument to World War I and II dead declaring: “These lists of Americans who gave their lives for our nation remain segregated because the S.C. General Assembly either opposes integration or refuses to let local governments make their own decisions or both.”
Columbia has no jurisdiction over the State House grounds, but certainly it can erect such contextual signs on city property.
It’s difficult to affix a sign of explanation to road signs, and if you did that you’d create a public safety problem. But any city or town that is offended by its street names certainly could post disclaimers on its website: “We prefer not to honor Robert E. Lee (or Wade Hampton or John Calhoun or … fill in the name) by having a street named after him, but the Legislature leaves us no choice. So we are explaining why we object.”
In fact, any government that isn’t willing to provide that context to the monuments it finds offensive obviously isn’t that concerned about them. So officials there need to stop whining about how the Legislature won’t let them act.
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.