FIRST WE had what appears to be a sincere, bipartisan proposal to erect a monument on the S.C. State House grounds to honor Robert Smalls, a Beaufort slave who hijacked the Confederate supply ship he worked on, delivered it to and served in the Union Army and later served in the General Assembly and the Congress.
It was quickly followed by a proposal by two of the Legislature’s most avid Confederate flag supporters to “educate” the public about “the whole story” of the recent unpleasantness — by building a monument to black Confederate soldiers.
Both pairs of statue supporters cast their effort as an attempt to find common ground now that the rest of the country has discovered South Carolina’s love for doing battle over things Confederate. I’m not holding my breath.
The common ground they seek is located in very different places. For Republican Sen. Greg Gregory and Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson, a monument to Mr. Smalls is a tiny step toward righting the sort of wrongs embodied in our honors to the white supremacist Benjamin Tillman. GOP Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns say they hope a monument to black Confederates would “dilute some of the hate” about Confederate monuments and help explain a war they say is misunderstood.
Of course, there’s opposition built in to both proposals. Some South Carolinians would consider Mr. Smalls a traitor and would oppose any efforts to honor him — and, please, God, let them not be so brazen as to say that out loud, at least not the ones in our Legislature. As for the slaves who “stepped up to defend their home state during a tumultuous time in our country’s history,” historians consider the idea that black Confederates existed in significant numbers at best an exaggeration, at worst a fabrication designed to promote the fiction that the war had nothing to do with slavery.
And it’s hard to argue with GOP Sen. William Tillman, who told Anderson’s Independent Mail that if the goal is to bring peace while leaving Confederate monuments in place, “The people who are aggrieved by the issue of Confederate monuments should be the people who decide what is added.”
Then there’s the legal problem.
Everyone who cares about Confederate monuments knows about the S.C. Heritage Act, which prohibits state agencies, colleges, cities, counties and even some private organizations from moving, removing or altering any of a long list of “monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions.”
What most people don’t know about is the much more sensible law that limits what the Legislature can add to the State House grounds.
This law was passed in 2007, right after monuments were erected to fallen law enforcement officers and American veterans. That brought to 37 (40 by some counts) the number of statues, monuments and markers elbowing for space along with seven buildings on Columbia’s one-square-block capitol complex. And it gave those 18 acres the feel of Mendel Rivers’ Charleston — which, the saying used to go, was in danger of sinking into the sea under the weight of all the military bases the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee procured for his district.
As then-Rep. Rex Rice explained after Monument No. 37 (or 40) went up, legislators began to worry that “Pretty soon, you wouldn’t be able to walk around here.” So he and the other members of the State House Committee pushed through a bill to ban new monuments.
There are two ways to get around the moratorium. Neither is easy.
The most obvious is for the Legislature to repeal the law. That would raise the question of why lawmakers are willing to repeal a law that limits only what they can do, while leaving intact a law that limits what elected city councils and county councils can do — on their own property. Lawmakers have never been bashful about applying double standards, but they might want to avoid that charge on such an emotionally charged topic.
The alternative method, which by my reading would require first passing a law to amend the moratorium, revolves around the 10-member State House Committee, chaired by Sen. Harvey Peeler. That panel would have to agree to even consider a new monument, and then approve it by two-thirds vote. But only after monument backers present “a detailed, written statement explaining the enduring historical significance of the proposed monument, including how the monument will represent the contributions, achievements, and accomplishments of a South Carolinian or a milestone in the state's history; an artist’s rendering, scale model, or stamped architectural rendering of the proposed monument; and a detailed statement of the funding for the proposed monument and its installation.” Which seems amazingly reasonable to me.
Finally, the House and Senate would have to authorize the new monument. But in spite of what you’d expect after such a cumbersome process, that final approval would be quick and easy, via a concurrent resolution, which can pass in a single day and does not require the signature of the governor. Because regardless of who gets enshrined in granite, this is and apparently always will be The Legislative State, where the most monumental honor one can hope for is to serve in the General Assembly.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.