By: Robert Scott
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis a month ago was the rock thrown into the pond that caused ripples on every shore. Among the many ripples striking the shore here in South Carolina was the removal of the statue of John C. Calhoun from its tall pedestal almost directly across the street from the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Another was a renewed petition this time by the Board of Directors of Clemson University, to change the name of its iconic Tillman Hall, honoring the Edgefield native son whose main political draw was his unending goal of keeping what was then the majority black population subordinate in every way to the white. And a third was the proliferation of #BlackLivesMatter marches across the state, including here in Edgefield and next door in North Augusta. The North Augusta march, like the larger demonstrations in Charleston, was focused on removing a monument, this one to another Edgefield native son, Thomas McKie Meriwether – the one white casualty of the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876, in which seven black men were killed.
It is against the law, we are told, to change a building name in Clemson or to remove a monument in North Augusta, even if the Boards and City Councils were unanimous in their desire to do so. The law in question is the South Carolina Heritage Act, enacted 20 years ago as the quid in a legislative deal whose quo was removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the statehouse dome. The Heritage Act imposed a requirement that any such name change or monument removal cannot proceed unless individually approved by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the state legislature. This past week, the state Supreme Court ruled that although the requirement of legislative approval is constitutional, the two-thirds requirement is not; henceforth, only a simple majority vote of each house will be required.
Although the court ruled that the remainder of the Heritage Act is constitutional, it did not rule on whether it is right. Times are changing, and each of us and each community where we live is being forced to look at themselves and to ask, is this who we are, in 2020? Do our monuments only reflect what happened here in the past, or do they honor those whom we no longer consider to be honorable?
Those are questions that call out for answers, answers by our towns, by our counties, by our colleges. A monument on public property in North Augusta should continue to be there only as long as the people of North Augusta want it to be there, without worrying whether legislators from Greenville or Fort Mill agree. Edgefield, town and county, ought to be allowed to decide which monuments and which names, remain appropriate to honor our past, and which ones’ time has now run out and should be changed.
You are reading an opinion column, and these are my opinions. I have asked both Sen. Shane Massey and Rep. Bill Hixon, who represents that part of the county where I live (and who also represents North Augusta), whether they agree with me. They told me they do not. I have asked them whether they wish to run a piece inThe Edgefield Advertiserexplaining why they don’t think the people of Edgefield should be allowed to decide what monuments and names should remain unchanged in Edgefield. So far, neither has responded to that invitation. I am sure that the Editor would welcome such a column, and I hereby renew that invitation. Do we want Edgefield to lift ourselves into a future that can be great for all of us, or continue to be yoked to honoring a past that was horrible for half our population? Cannot that question be allowed an answer here in Edgefield, and not have our hands tied by those in Columbia?
Perhaps I look at monuments differently because I grew up in Maryland, a state that was occupied by both sides in the civil war. Monuments show moments in our history and we can use them as learning tools. Change the monument to tell the story of what happened then without the elegant prose, and honor all that died. “At this site in…” Frame the moment, not for glory but as a part of history. Teaching about our warts.