Since you mention it, Tillman statue should come down

In arguing that Penn State shouldn’t take down a statue of Joe Paterno because Happy Valley should not be allowed “to forget its own compliance in a national crime,” a guest columnist in The New York Times this week drew this comparison:

The need to clean history so that the record might reflect our current values, and not our sordid past, is broad. In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman’s statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history.

Whereas Tillman’s most spectacular sins were known at the time of his lionization, Paterno’s only later came to light. And yet the central sin that now haunts Happy Valley has long been in evidence — a tragic myopia….

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mention of Tillman wasn’t the best way to illustrate his point. After all, Paterno is a man whom this generation idolized, and who has fallen into disgrace at the end of his life, and these people who lived through both the glory and the shame are now forced to reassess what they think of him — or not, as their consciences dictate.

Ben Tillman is a whole other sort of mess.

To begin with, most South Carolinians, I’ll venture, don’t know who Ben Tillman was, or that that statue represents him. Until it became my business to know SC politics inside and out — which involved understanding our history — all I knew about him was that when my grandmother was a little girl, he was her neighbor in the Washington area (her father, my great-grandfather, was an attorney for the Treasury Department). Once, he coaxed her to sit on his lap by offering her an apple from his cellar. She asked to see under his eyepatch, but he declined. Her parents, who were from South Carolina, were later appalled that she had come anywhere near that awful man (I suspect they were of the same political persuasion as the founders of The State, which was established for the purpose of fighting the Tillman machine), but she never understood why.

Generations later, when I learned what Tillman was about, I was pretty horrified that she had gotten near him myself.

But walk through the mall and show a picture of his statue to 100 people, and I’m pretty sure far fewer than 50 will be able to tell you much about him.

I have no opinion about Joe Paterno, but of course the Tillman statue should come down. Mr. Coates notion of what to do with the Paterno statue…

Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime, to expunge its own culpability in its ruthless pursuit of glory. The statue should remain, and beneath it there should be a full explanation of Sandusky’s crimes, Paterno’s role and some warning to all of us who would turn a pastime into a god and elect a mortal man as its avatar.

… would never, ever happen with the Tillman one. The idea that South Carolinians would a) come to form a strong opinion collectively about Tillman, b) have that consensus opinion be one of condemnation, c) agree generally on wording that criticized, even by implication, their ancestors for having admired him enough to put it up, is pretty much beyond the category of things we should hold our breath while waiting for.

Basically, those of us who know who he was should just take it down, with a minimum of fuss, or with no more than a quiet exorcism ceremony. Of course, we’d have to get the approval of the powers that control the State House grounds.

I’ve spent all these years trying to get the flag — a symbol that most South Carolinians at least think they understand — off the grounds, but hey, I’m game. Let’s go for it.

And while I think it’s worth undertaking, I do feel obliged to warn those who help in this enterprise that we would likely encounter lawmakers who previously knew nothing about Tillman, but who, once they learned about him, would be inspired to rise to his defense…

49 thoughts on “Since you mention it, Tillman statue should come down

  1. Steven Davis II

    Brad, instead of blogging why don’t you do what you really want to do… rewrite history.

    And no I didn’t read your article, why waste time reading something that’ll never happen. You’d have about as much luck removing this statue as you would the Confederate or African American monuments.

  2. Karen McLeod

    Tillman was loved at the time (by the white populace), but he’s not involved in “the Confederacy.” It is time for his statue to come down. I suspect vice gov. McConnell would agree.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Why doesn’t Nikki Haley, who is so sensitive to racial slurs, and so cognizant of the taxpayer, sell it for the high-priced metal? Two birds with one stone!

  4. Steve Gordy

    AS I recall, Mark Sanford’s supporters frequently cited the Tillman-inspired 1895 constitution as one of the impediments to giving the governor effective authority. But his baleful legacy goes much deeper.

  5. Michael Rodgers


    Steven is right, taking down the Tillman statue is like rewriting history. What’s next, taking down the Strom Thurmond statue? And then?

    Now, the Confederate flag is an altogether different issue. The people who put it up are the ones rewriting history. And more than that, they demand a living symbol and refuse a bronze plaque.

    Also, if we take down the flag, it stops right there. That’s the end. There’s no other flag next on the list. There’s no list; it’s a singularity.

    The flag situation is completely different from the monument situation. If one statue or monument is removed, then perhaps another and another might be removed.

    Leave the statues and monuments alone. They’re dead and bronzed. Take down the Confederate flag. It flaps and waves, demanding that we honor it just as we honor our state’s flag and our nation’s flag. That demand is a rewriting of history.

    If the Confederate flag is part of the Confederate Soldier Monument, then it should be bronzed just like him.



  6. Steven Davis II

    Why don’t we get Walter Edgar to rewrite South Carolina history to a more politically correct version?

    If you want to look at history from a humanity perspective, South Carolina at one time was one of the most cruel and inhumane states in the country.

    But it’s easier to single out individuals than it is to take a whole society. Face it, the things that happened in the past happened because they were accepted practices at the time. Just because someone doesn’t like it today, doesn’t mean it has to be erased from history.

  7. Steven Davis II

    Oh goodie, we’re going to talk about the flag issue again… another dead topic.

    Mike, were you around when the flag was brought back? You are against rewriting history, but are wanting to do exactly that. You want something you don’t agree with taken down and removed from sight. How is this different than the Tillman statue that you’re defending?

  8. Michael Rodgers

    Steven’s right again, and that’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates was saying exactly.

    Steven said, “it’s easier to single out individuals than it is to take a whole society”

    Ta-Nehisi said “Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime”

  9. Michael Rodgers

    Returning to the Confederate flag issue: Our state law on “desecration or mutilation of flags” protects our state’s flag and our nation’s flag and wrongly extends that protection to Confederate flags.

    If we extend protections to Confederate flags, what’s next to get protection? Why wouldn’t we continue onwards and protect the British flag, the Mexican flag, the Canadian flag, etc.

    This is what we see with the license plate issue. One group wants a new license plate and then we keep going and going, giving every group the state’s imprimatur.

    We should only have one license plate. We should only fly (and protect) two flags, our state’s flag and our nation’s flag.

  10. Michael Rodgers

    If you’re not going to read what I wrote, then please don’t ask me questions. I answered your question already.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    Here in Germany, the Ulm Minster has a huge Holocaust remembrance window over the main entry. There are no statues of Nazis or swastikas anywhere.

  12. Steven Davis II

    “wrongly extends that protection to Confederate flags.”

    Who gets to determine what flag is right and what flag is wrong?

    Other than a hit on my property value, if my neighbor wants to fly a Nazi flag then that should be his constitutional right. Same if he wants to fly the Black Panther flag, the Mexican flag, the Swedish flag, the gay pride flag, etc… If I don’t like it, I can move, it’s really none of my business what he does on his personal property as long as he isn’t breaking the law.

  13. Brad

    A couple or three points, Steven.

    “Other than a hit on my property value…” Exactly. Check SC property values against those in other parts of the country, and think about it.

    But of course, we’re not talking about what your neighbor does on his property. We are talking about what WE do on the property we all own together, the State House grounds. And when you ask, “Who gets to determine what flag is right and what flag is wrong?,” the answer is, We do. That’s why we have these discussions.

  14. Brad

    Now, to go back a bit…

    Walter Edgar doesn’t have to rewrite anything. As it happens, I learned much of what I know about Tillman from Walter. Facts are facts.

    But you are completely right that he reflects the people who elected him, completely and thoroughly. He is their expression.

    But Karen, to say that he was loved “by the white populace” isn’t entirely accurate. The sort of people to whom a populist appeals loved him. To the Hampton faction — which included the Gonzales brothers who started The State, and my own aforementioned great-grandparents (I infer) — he was anathema.

    That’s the problem with hoping that Nikki Haley would act to remove his statue, Kathryn. Yes, it would be a great way to play to the “minority woman” persona she likes to project to the national media. But she is a populist, and therefore her base is much like Tillmans — in fact, they are the closest thing to that faction that we have as a significant element in SC politics today.

    One more correction: Steve Gordy cites ” the Tillman-inspired 1895 constitution as one of the impediments to giving the governor effective authority.”

    People say that a lot, but it’s misleading. Yes, we live under the Tillman constitution. And yes, it perpetuates the weird centralized-yet-fragmented form of government that gives the Legislature inordinate executive and local power. But that was no innovation of Tillman’s, not by a long shot. It was the central concept in every SC constitution that preceded it. It predates South Carolina being a state. It dates back to the time of the Lords Proprietors, and the governing documents that John Locke drew up for his patron, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper.

    All Tillman’s constitution did was keep that feature.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    Of course, Brad, I know that our Tracy Fleck is really all about the election. A foolish consistency, right?

  16. Karen McLeod

    Last time I checked, Tillman was no aristocrat. He was a populist, and beloved by enough people to have a statue of him erected on the State House Grounds. If we don’t take it down, could we at least put up some kind of sign, explaining the other side of this person. What’s there makes him sound like a hero.

    Hmm. Maybe we could do the same with the Confederate flag. Perhaps a copy of the SC articles of secession? Maybe Walter Edgar could help us with both?

  17. Brad

    Yes, Karen, as I just said… he was no aristocrat. He was quite the other thing…

    That said… he was an expression of the aspirations and values of the commoner sort of whites of his time. And here’s where things get complicated.

    Populists can do great things for the common people, lifting them up through education — which Tillman tried to do, establishing Clemson — and pursuing policies that spread the wealth around. But too often they are also expressions of the meaner sorts of lowest-common-denominator values — such as his open embrace of lynching. And that’s where populists lose me completely…

  18. Kathryn Fenner

    Please watch the overlooked film Election and see if you don’t agree with me And many others that Tracy Fleck is Nikki Haley, played by Reese Witherspoon.

    Pitchfork Ben, a Face in the Crowd?

  19. Steven Davis II

    So you’re saying the root cause of lower property values in South Carolina is because of the 10×10 square foot monument with the flagpole on it. Interesting.

    Here I am thinking it’s because we have little demand for skilled workers (because SC isn’t known for raising brain surgeons and rocket scientists) who would in turn earn higher wages which would lead to more expensive homes and higher property values. It’s shocking that the mobile home capitol of the country continues to rank at the bottom of the property value scale. In many places around SC the property value is determined by how much gas is in the tank of the abandoned vehicle in the front yard.

  20. Michael Rodgers

    I’m talking about the slippery slope argument which says that one means all and asks is the slope slippery or is there any clear place to stand on.

    With flags, there is a clear place to stand on. We fly two (state and nation) flags and stop there. As a state, we don’t fly a third or fourth or fifth flag. The slippery slope starts when we fly a third flag, and then it’s slip, slide, and away. What flag will we fly next? I think the Gadsden flag will go up soon, and then more flags.

    With license plates, there is a clear place to stand on. As a state, we issue one license plate and stop there. We don’t issue a second or third or fourth license plate.

    With monuments, well, we keep putting up monuments, and we take very few, probably none down. I don’t see any reason to start taking down monuments because if we start, when will we stop?

  21. Michael Rodgers

    Kathryn, IIRC Brad wrote something about Haley, Sheheen, and high school; I believe it was for the Shop Tart.

  22. Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, Steven, over-state Brad’s well-put position and then mock it. Really advances the discussion.

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    We stop when the ones we no longer wish to honor are down. Known, unreformed advocates of racial violence, like Tillman are a start….then we take away Andre Bauer’s interchange or whatever he has…..we say, “This was wrong and we are not like this any more.” just like the Germans do.

  24. Brad

    Ve are not ze Germans. Not by a long shot.

    Something I didn’t say earlier and meant to… I agree with Michael on pretty much everything he said about why it’s more important to get rid of the flag than this or any statue. In fact, I’ve pretty much said all those things in the past.

    It’s just that if you ASK me whether the Tillman statue should be there, my answer will be no. You’ll notice that, going forward, I’ll likely continue to focus more on the flag, which IS more problematic, and less justifiable.

  25. Kathryn Fenner

    Just because fewer blacks were murdered for being black than Jews were for being Jewish doesn’t change the evil wrought by the racist demagogues like Tillman.

  26. Steven Davis II

    Oh great Michael, now we’re supposed to take the political advice from someone who makes her living shopping for overpriced purses and dining on dandelion leaf salads in 5-Points.

  27. Steven Davis II

    “Yes, Steven, over-state Brad’s well-put position and then mock it. Really advances the discussion.

    At least I stayed on topic with my comment. Please feel free to correct or argue any errors in my statement.

  28. Steven Davis II

    @Michael – Why don’t you run for office if you feel so strongly about these things? I doubt complaining on a local blog is going to make much of a difference.

  29. Steven Davis II

    “And I self-edited a tasteless remark about relative ethnic propensities for efficiency….”

    As they say in South Carolina, “Do what???”

  30. Kathryn Fenner

    The guest post BY BRAD, for those too … clIck through to read it.

    [Editor’s note: “Stubborn.” I think Kathryn meant “stubborn.”/bw]

  31. Steve Gordy

    Brad, thank you for the reminder that the aristocratic bias in SC governmental institutions is a feature of our history, not a bug of the 1895 constitution.

  32. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I think Karen’s on to something. Taking down the Tillman statue simply erases his actions from the minds of most South Carolinians. But if you add a plaque that explains his role in state history, his overt racism and how many hundreds of thousands of blacks were increasingly discriminated against after Tillman and his minions came to power, it would add valuable context to the his actions.

    And I’m not 100 percent positive, but I believe the state constitution of 1868, while not perfect, didn’t leave blacks disenfranchised, as did the Tillman-back constitution of 1895. It was always my impression that the Constitutional Convention of 1895 was held to undo the social and political advances of the 1868 constitution.

  33. Michael Rodgers

    The Paterno statue is gone. Here’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say.

    “I continue to be concerned about public historiography, but that all feels really abstract when you’re talking about a victim of child rape. To carry forth my original analogy, whatever my thoughts on Ben Tillman, it would take a cold heart to make academic points to the families of lynching victims from the confines of the writer’s comfy offices.”

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