As the Confederate flag was lowered for the last time, the bronze statue of Gov. Benjamin Tillman watched disapprovingly from its still-prominent place on the State House grounds. While he certainly would have objected to the flag’s removal, Tillman likely would have been even more outraged to know that the grace of nine African-American families, along with our Indian-American, female governor, helped pave the way for that historic moment.
Some have argued that street names should be changed and statues such as Tillman’s moved. But the better next step is to revisit something that was born of Tillman’s overt racism and has held our state back for more than a century: South Carolina’s Constitution of 1895.
The deplorable shootings at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church took place in the evening of June 17. Less than one week later, governors in Alabama and Virginia had ordered the removal of the Confederate flag from government property, including capitol grounds and license plates. Meanwhile, here in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley was powerless to issue any such order; she didn’t even have the ability to call the Legislature into session to consider whether the flag should continue to fly at the seat of government. This was all thanks to Ben Tillman.
During his inauguration as governor in 1890, Tillman announced his intentions for South Carolina: “The whites have absolute control of the State government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it.” Five years later, after his tenure as governor had concluded, Tillman lorded over a constitutional convention that upended South Carolina’s government. His goal was simple: to ostracize minorities — who were defined as anyone having “one eighth or more negro blood” — and, just in case a black man was ever elected governor, to dilute power within and deflect authority away from the executive branch.
Tillman got his way, and after his perverse vision for South Carolina’s government was ratified, he closed the 1895 convention with this rant: “If we were free, instead of having negro suffrage, we would have negro slavery. Instead of having the United States government, we would have the Confederate States government.” He concluded: “And no matter what shall betide us in the future, I believe we can meet any fate, and nothing can go amiss with us unless we forget that we are white men, Carolinians and Democrats.” According to the convention’s journal, this repugnant declaration drew “prolonged applause.”
It is remarkable that Tillman’s loathsome vision is not some mere relic of history. His poisonous prescription for our state remains with us today and every day that the Constitution of 1895 continues to rule our state.
The best way to remove Tillman’s racist stain on our state is not to remove his statue. It’s not to vandalize his portrait. It’s not to rename buildings at our state universities.
Instead, we ought to revisit and repair the entire structure of our state government in a way that rejects Tillman’s guiding principles. To amend our constitution in a way that empowers and consolidates, rather than cripples and diffuses, the executive branch. To restructure our state government in a way that provides meaningful balance among the three branches. To reclaim our government — and, indeed, South Carolina’s future — from the dead hand of an unapologetic racist.
That would be the most meaningful way possible to dishonor Tillman’s legacy and maintain the momentum of this month’s watershed moment.