By Barney Blakeney
For many the statue of South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun towering over Marion Square in downtown Charleston represents little more than a curiosity. Most natives and many residents know the story of the man for whom it is dedicated, but the monument more often than not is viewed from a distance as a reminder of a dark past. Last August the racially inflamed confrontation between protesters and proponents for the dismantling of Confederate Memorials in Charlottesville, VA heightened local calls to remove the Calhoun statue.
City of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg sought to prevent similar confrontations here through a compromise that would use verbiage to put the memorial in a more accurate historical context. After months, Charleston History Commission January 9 went to city council with verbiage for a new plaque to do that. The effort was rejected. In a more civil fashion than the confrontation in Charlottesville battle lines are being drawn, but the fight threatens to be just as contentious.
Council’s four Black members stand in solidarity opposing the effort to keep the statue with new verbiage. “No words on a plaque can make a difference to me,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie noting the compromise proposal’s deferment won’t make the issue go away.
“With that statue on the same grounds as the Jewish Holocaust Memorial and overlooking the path of Emanuel Way commemorating the church where nine Black people were murdered because of the racism of people like John C. Calhoun, I don’t think so! Put it in a museum, anywhere else. But in this, a new time, although the mayor’s proposal is well-intentioned we have to explore other options.”
Councilman Perry Keith Waring said council’s eight white members should recognize that any memorial to Calhoun is undeserving. As one of the most politically powerful men of his time, Calhoun championed the causes of slavery while simultaneously subjugating white women and advocating treason against the United States.
“At the seat of power, racism becomes law. Calhoun practiced racism with surgical precision. Why would anyone celebrate a leader who turned his back on our nation? I hope we have an ‘aha’ moment and realize that the current words on the statue – “Truth, Justice and the Constitution” – don’t characterize Calhoun. Because of his ideology, it took bloodshed – the murder of nine people at Emanuel – to remove the Confederate Flag, a symbol of racism, from the statehouse.”
Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard hopes to make the decision easier for city officials. He’s pre-filed a bill that would repeal the state’s Heritage Act which prevents the removal of Confederate memorials without legislative approval. But Charleston Sen. Marlon Kimpson has little confidence any such bills will past legislative muster. There’s been no discussion of repealing the act among senators, he said.
Kimpson said he thinks it’s important to record history accurately, but he’s not going to waste any time focusing on dead racists and will instead opt to focus on current racist policies, particularly as they relate to economic empowerment and opportunities.
“Fundamental change doesn’t take place through words on a plaque,” he said.