Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Shouldn’t the owners of monuments get to decide their fate?

Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams stands beside the Greenwood County memorial that honors its citizens who died in recent wars. The mayor’s push to replace old plaques that split soldiers killed in World War I and II into “white” and “colored” was rejected by the SC Legislature.
Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams stands beside the Greenwood County memorial that honors its citizens who died in recent wars. The mayor’s push to replace old plaques that split soldiers killed in World War I and II into “white” and “colored” was rejected by the SC Legislature. AP

YOU KNOW THE story by now: In 1929, the American Legion post in Greenwood erected a monument on city property to honor local soldiers who had died in World War I; later, the names of fallen soldiers from World War II were added, and like the World War I dead, they were separated into two categories: “white” and “colored.”

In 2014, the American Legion, embarrassed by its segregated monument, asked Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams to help raise $15,000 to desegregate the names. He did, and he was all set to dedicate new plaques and move the old ones to the county museum when he found out about the South Carolina Heritage Act.

Specifically, he found out about Section 10-1-165 of S.C. law, which reads as follows:

(A) No Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered. No street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the State or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed or rededicated. …

(B) The provisions of this section may only be amended or repealed upon passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly.

Mayor Adams and the American Legion asked the Legislature to pass a bill to let them change the plaque on their monument. The Legislature declined, with several senators explaining that they were afraid this would reopen the debate about the Confederate flag. And after the Legislature reopened the flag debate itself, House Speaker Jay Lucas announced that there would be no more exceptions to the Heritage Act as long as he’s speaker.

His declaration seemed directed at preserving state honors bestowed on the notoriously racist former governor and senator Benjamin Tillman. But it also told Greenwood and the American Legion that they have no control over their property and their monument, even though it has nothing to do with the Civil War.

I understand the concern over changing, moving or demolishing monuments. When The Associated Press’ Jeffrey Collins discovered the situation in Greenwood back in February, he talked to historians black and white, and they were universal in their opposition to replacing the segregated plaques.

Because of the deference due to history, I have no problem with the Legislature retaining its veto power over efforts to remove or alter official reminders of things past. So long as they are things that are owned by the state of South Carolina.

What I have a problem with is the Legislature retaining authority over other people’s property.

This compulsion to horde power is part of a much larger problem in our state: the Legislature’s refusal to allow the duly elected members of city and county councils to run their cities and counties.

Legislative meddling usually manifests itself in tax and spending policy — as in the Legislature ordering local governments to provide more and more services, but refusing to pay for those services or even allow the local governments to raise taxes to pay for them. But legislators don’t stop there: They restrict local governments’ ability to make zoning decisions and to regulate smoking and hog farms and billboards. And to relocate or even rename their own monuments.

What I have problem with is the Legislature requiring a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate to change its mind about precisely what and where and how we celebrate the past. That allows a third of either the House or the Senate to subvert the will of the majority. That is anti-democratic and anti-republican and just a bad way to run a government.

We should all hope that once cooler heads prevail, the speaker will walk back his Shermanesque statement, and the Legislature will give the American Legion and the city of Greenwood control over their own property — and give all local governments and private entities control over their property as well, for that matter.

If that doesn’t happen, there’s a better solution than a lawsuit: The folks in Greenwood should take up a collection for a new sign, to erect next to the monument, that says: “These lists of Americans who gave their lives for our nation remain segregated in the 21st century because the S.C. General Assembly either opposes integration or refuses to let local governments make their own decisions or both.”

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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