South Carolinians have a complicated relationship with a history we love, but clearly do not understand. Our tortured connection to Benjamin Ryan Tillman – whose statue stands on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, and is carried on campus buildings at Clemson and Winthrop universities – is a perfect example.
Our state’s relationship with the past is exacerbated by the Heritage Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2000, which makes it illegal to remove or alter any monument, memorial or flag, or to change the name of any street, road, or public building without the consent of the legislature.
Today, as Americans take a new look at their Confederate monuments and debate what they stand for, South Carolinians would be wise to reflect on “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and ask ourselves if he deserves our veneration in the 21st century.
A detailed account of Tillman’s life and career can be seen at www.downwithtillman.com, but here are some highlights from that bloody story.
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Tillman was born in Edgefield District in 1847. After the Civil War, he rode with white vigilantes called Red Shirts, who made war against the Reconstruction government, terrorizing black communities and breaking up political meetings and elections. In 1876, more than a hundred African Americans were killed by white terrorists and Tillman was involved in the murder of unarmed prisoners in at least two incidents, including the Hamburg Massacre.
More than 30 years later, Tillman described their mission this way: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize upon the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provide a riot and teach the negroes a lesson: as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro and carpetbag rule.”
The Reconstruction government collapsed in 1877 and South Carolina’s white minority set about consolidating power. Tillman later said of those turbulent days: “We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]...we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
In the years following Reconstruction, Tillman launched his political career as a coarse and angry populist, becoming the prototype of the southern demagogue. He rode the populist agrarian wave to the governorship in 1890 and to the U.S. Senate in 1896.
As a stump politician, he advocated lynching and played on the ancient white fear of the black man as sexual rival and predator. In 1892, he said, “There is only one crime that warrants lynching, and Governor that I am, I would lead a mob to lynch a negro that ravishes a white woman. I do justify lynching for rape, and before Almighty God, I am not ashamed of it.”
Tillman’s most lasting effect on this state was to call a convention in 1895 to draft a new constitution, whose primary purpose was to disenfranchise black voters, paving the way for racial segregation – Jim Crow Laws – across the state. This constitution created literacy tests and poll taxes, requiring a voter to own and pay taxes on property assessed at $300. Our society and politics have been brutalized by this disgraceful document for over a century.
It seems that Tillman also has his admirers outside South Carolina. On its website, the white supremacist group Stormfront calls Tillman one of “the greatest men South Carolina and indeed this nation has ever produced.”
Facts don’t change, but our attitude toward them does. Our laws and institutions must evolve to meet new times and new awareness. To try to freeze social attitudes, as the Heritage Act does, is both ludicrous and dangerous.
Contact your state representative and state senator at http://scstatehouse.gov/legislatorssearch.php. Tell them it’s time to repeal the Heritage Act and to remove the Tillman statue from the Statehouse grounds.
This should be a moment for every South Carolinian to take a long look at our past, at figures like Ben Tillman, and to ask ourselves who they were, what they stood for and if they really speak to who were are today. In the process we might discover who we are and how we got here.
The writer is a journalist and author of “Banana Republic – A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.”