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Why does South Carolina honor a racist murderer with a statue?

Moredock's advertisement questioning presence of a Tillman memorial on State House grounds ran in the January 14 issue of The State.
Moredock's advertisement questioning presence of a Tillman memorial on State House grounds ran in the January 14 issue of The State.
created by Will Moredock

He helped organize a white supremacists’ massacre of African-Americans. He incorporated laws that blocked black citizens from holding office in South Carolina for almost a century. He openly threatened to kill any black man who attempted to vote, and publicly claimed to have kept that threat.

But a commemorative statue of Benjamin Ryan Tillman Jr., calling him “friend and leader of the common people,” is still featured in Columbia, where it has stood for almost 75 years.

It shouldn’t be there for another day, though, says Will Moredock, a writer and Palmetto State native who recently purchased a full-page newspaper ad calling for the memorial to be taken down.

Featuring a photo of the statue, the advertisement ran in Columbia’s The State on January 14, the same day the 2014 legislation session began, reading:

Meet Ben Tillman: Terrorist, Murderer, White Supremacist. Why is he on our State House grounds?

The ad includes an address to Moredock’s website that offers detailed records of Tillman’s infamous inhumanity, and closes with suggestion, too.

(C)all your state senator and representative and say it is time to take Tillman down.

So who, exactly, was Ben Tillman?

A son of British descendants, he was born in the small town of Trenton in 1847. He couldn’t serve in the Civil War due to an infection that cost him his left eye, but Tillman was definitely a Confederate supporter.

In fact, shortly after the Civil War, Tillman was commander of the Edgefield County’s Sweetwater Sabre Club, a militant protest group that threatened and attacked Republicans who controlled state government at the time. In 1876, he and his group helped organize the Hamburg Massacre, slaying blacks who served in the Union forces.

After gaining reputation as a white supremacist for that terrorist event, he quickly became active in politics. In 1890 Tillman was elected governor of South Carolina, serving a four-year period during which he helped rewrite the state constitution to remove African Americans from representation by government. He spent the next 24 years until his 1918 death in the U.S. Senate, where he not only formally spoke of restraining the black population, but openly admitted to torturing and murdering them, too.

So why, then, is Tillman honored with a memorial on the State House grounds? That’s what Moredock wants to know. And has wanted to know for quite some time.

I have been aware of the statue since I was a child. I was taught that he was a hero, a man to be venerated. That’s why his statue was there on the Statehouse grounds. Later, of course, I learned it was a lot more complicated than that.

“More complicated” is an understatement, though, as anyone can see by briefly examining history, or simply from the quotes Moredock includes in his ad. Tillman proudly bragged about his crimes.

Speaking from the Senate floor on February 26, 1900, he said:

(W)e 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.

Addressing the Senate on March 23, 1900, Tillman recalled his successful efforts to deny blacks of rights in South Carolina while governor five years earlier:

(W)e had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the 14th and 15th Amendments.

In that same March 1900 address, Tillman continued his history of violent threats:

We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.

The blatant immorality of those actions, let alone their illegality, was of no apparent relevance to Tillman, who closed that same address saying:

I am not ashamed to have those facts go to the country.

This history left shame on Moredock, though, and for quite some time.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I lived downtown, a few blocks from the Statehouse and would walk down there late at night many times to appreciate the silent majesty of the Statehouse and grounds. I was surrounded by a number of people in stone and bronze that I would have had great differences of opinion with, but only one that I considered absolutely evil. That was Tillman. In those days, I fantasized about backing a pickup truck onto the grounds there in the early hours of the morning and tossing a rope around his neck and yanking him off that pedestal. I would have gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of that, but I probably would have gone to jail.

Moredock’s taken on other enemies in his career as journalist, researcher and college instructor, with targets ranging from politicians to real estate developers, as well as a public that continues to use a “let’s ignore it and maybe it will go away” response to ever-present racism.

And there were periodic movements to address the discriminatory icons on state grounds, too, such as the 2000 removal of the Confederate flag from the State House (although it was only moved to a memorial right in front of the building).

Some even directly addressed the Tillman statue. In 2008 state Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) introduced a bill calling for its removal, even offering later compromise that the statue merely bear a plaque telling of Tillman’s questionable actions instead of only praise.

The bill never made it out of committee, however. Its stagnation was credited to other state representatives’ objection that any action would lead to calls for removal of other memorials from the capitol grounds.

The lack of current response is what prodded Moredock to purchase the advertisement. There’s no established battle plan, though.

This was not an organized effort. This was just a gesture to get people’s attention and start the ball rolling.

At the same time the full-page ad appeared, he launched the Down With Tillman website, along with accompanying Facebook page that’s steadily gained local fans since its recent creation. Aside from these actions, Moredock says he’ll submit guest columns on the issue to local media along with letters to the editor, which he hopes others will do, as well.

Similar movements had recent success in other states. For example, a Frederick, Md. memorial to native and former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney now features a plaque detailing how Taney’s infamous Dred Scott decision supported slavery, and just last year North Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its state capitol building.

Moredock hopes that today’s South Carolinians will follow such examples and reject the notorious legacies of its past.

I think every generation has a right to assess the public shrines and landmarks and determine which ones are still relevant and speak to the needs of their age. I would argue that the Tillman statue does not and that it should go. It is offensive to many South Carolinians — perhaps a majority. But the very fact that it offends so many is reason to bring it down.

There are still many rows to hoe, though, and as Moredock once described in a 2012 column in Charleston City Paper:

Unable to own their past, many white Southerners have fabricated a history of moonlight and magnolias, of happy slaves and kindly masters, of plantation belles and dashing cavaliers. The South is a land of towering myths, of tall tales that would be amusing, were they not so deadly. For too many white people, these fantasies are the source of their pride and their identity. They have killed and maimed and terrorized to preserve their myths and their myth makers. Lacking facts and moral authority, they are reduced to rage and violence.

It will not end until black and white can come together and share the same history. There is no political or intellectual solution to this ancient tragedy. Ultimately, it is a spiritual crisis that requires a spiritual reconciliation. Only the passing of time and the softening of hearts can accomplish this.