Despite a South Carolina law protecting monuments, officials in the historic city of Charleston announced Wednesday that they plan to remove a statue of slavery advocate John C. Calhoun from a downtown square.
Mayor John Tecklenburg announced he will send a resolution to the City Council to remove the statue at a news conference on the fifth anniversary of the slaying of eight black church members and their pastor in Dylann Roof’s racist attack at a downtown Charleston church. The move comes as monuments to Confederates and other historical figures who repressed or oppressed other people are being removed across the country.
“What a beautiful show of support from our City Council,” Tecklenburg said, adding that he was happy to see so many come together in the effort “not to erase our long and often tragic history but to begin to write a new and more equitable future.” The mayor anticipated the statue will go to a local museum or educational institution.
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The next meeting of the Charleston City Council is scheduled for Tuesday.
Dozens of protesters linked arms around the monument Wednesday evening and shouted, “Take it down!” Video posted on Twitter also showed signs and spray-painting on the monument. Police said they were making arrests for vandalism and would provide details later.
After the 2015 church shooting, many conservative Republican lawmakers came together to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse lawn in Columbia. But just days later, Republican House Speaker Jay Lucas said no more monuments would be moved or removed during his tenure.
Lucas has kept his word, even as other killings of African Americans roiled the county and monuments came down. Charleston is trying to thread moving the Calhoun statue through the law, saying the city owns the statue instead of the state and it is on private, not public land.
Several black lawmakers are urging local governments and colleges to act on their own and defy the 2000 monument protection law because it carries no stated penalties and hasn’t faced a court challenge.
On Tuesday, the current pastor of Mother Emanuel stood with civil rights activists and politicians who called for the removal of the Calhoun statue, a 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) monument that presides over Francis Marion Square in the heart of the city.
Calhoun’s support of slavery never wavered. And in an 1836 speech before the U.S. Senate, he said slaves in the South were better off than free blacks in the North.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers said Calhoun “represents Dylann Roof to us.”
“The time has come to not just acknowledge your racist evil wicked past. The time has come to take down the monuments that honor the evil that was done in the name of Charleston, in the name of South Carolina,” Rivers said Tuesday at the foot of Calhoun’s statue.
The 2015 Confederate flag debate was the last time the General Assembly invoked a 2000 law called the Heritage Act, which protects all historical monuments and names of buildings.
Tecklenburg said the move isn't covered under the Heritage Act, noting the Calhoun monument is not on public property or in commemoration of one of the historical events listed in the act. According to the National Parks Service, the city technically leases the land where the monument sits and “is to be kept open forever as a parade ground for the Sumter Guards and the Washington Light Infantry.”
“This council before you today has the full authority to order its relocation to a setting where it can be placed in full historical context,” Tecklenburg said. “And it will be preserved and protected in another place where the full story of history can be told.”
It remains to be seen if Tecklenburg's interpretation will be disputed. A two-thirds vote from the state General Assembly is required to make any changes under the Heritage Act. That's a tough task in a state where conservative Republicans dominate the House and Senate.
House Speaker Lucas has not responded to repeated interview requests and questions about whether his stance has changed.
Pressure is mounting, however. Clemson University trustees voted Friday to ask the General Assembly to let it change the name of Tillman Hall, a main building on campus named for “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.
Tillman gained prominence supporting a white mob that killed four black men in 1876 after they surrendered. He later became South Carolina’s governor and a U.S. senator, committed to destroying any rights blacks obtained after the Civil War.
The president of the University of South Carolina wants lawmakers to let the school remove the name of J. Marion Sims from a women’s dorm. Sims is honored as the father of modern gynecology but conducted experimental treatment on slaves without anesthesia.
Sims and Tillman also have statues on the Statehouse lawn. Some African American lawmakers want plaques added, explaining their racist views. Others, like Rep. Justin Bamberg, want them gone.
“I don’t like seeing ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman every dang day I go to the Statehouse,” the Democrat said. “He boldly and proudly supported lynching my people.”