This weekend marks the one-year commemoration of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville. The ostensible cause? The City Council’s vote to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. White nationalists dominated the Unite the Right rally to defend the public presence of Confederate icons such as Lee as part of their push for “white rights.”
Although a year has passed, the statues in Charlottesville still stand, a reminder of the lingering tensions between those who defend Confederate icons as part of Southern heritage and those who see them as symbols of hate.
This long-running battle between defenders and opponents of Confederate imagery reignited after the massacre of African Americans in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 prompted South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag that flew over its State House grounds. The fight then progressed to places like New Orleans before Charlottesville turbocharged the debate. But while events in Charleston and Charlottesville draw our attention to the Confederacy, they can distract us from an equally potent set of statues and symbols, not from the era of slavery, but from the age of segregation.
In South Carolina and other Southern states, monuments that honor segregationists are just as pernicious as those to the Confederacy. These monuments reflect the stalwart racism that suppressed African Americans a century after the Civil War. By continuing to celebrate such figures, these monuments condone bigotry.
Throughout its history, South Carolina has been at the forefront of debates about race, slavery and states’ rights. Before the Civil War, South Carolinians developed extensive legal theories to defend state autonomy versus the federal government. And during the war, South Carolina, which was the first state to secede, was a hotbed of anti-Union sentiment. Nor did this end after the war. Just as in other Southern states, South Carolina firmly advanced white supremacy and segregation in the aftermath of slavery.
While the South Carolina State House removed its Confederate flag, it has been slower to reckon with the legacy of segregation. Two statues on its grounds commemorate fervent segregationists. One honors former South Carolina governor and senator Benjamin Tillman. Tillman has become a deeply controversial figure for the fervor with which he supported segregation, encouraging violence against African Americans to dissuade them from exercising their right to vote.
While in recent years Tillman’s statue has become a source of controversy, another statue to a segregationist has received very little attention.
Strom Thurmond had a long career in public service, but it was a career in service of only white South Carolinians, at the expense of African Americans. When the 1948 Democratic national convention added black civil rights to the Democratic Party platform, he stormed out with other Southern segregationists, forming the States’ Rights Democratic Party — also known as the Dixiecrats — and then running as its presidential nominee. Indeed, Thurmond so fervently opposed civil rights legislation in the name of states’ rights that he switched parties after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Thurmond modified his rhetoric in later years, part of an effort to remain relevant as the country shifted away from the segregationist politics of his early career. While he viscerally attacked the Supreme Court’s first African American justice, Thurgood Marshall, during the 1960s, he later supported Clarence Thomas’s nomination in 1991.
Thurmond served as a senator for 48 years, and his ultimate support of Thomas in 1991 showed his political astuteness and ability to adapt. But this does not justify his place of adoration on the South Carolina State House grounds. Thurmond never publicly repudiated or apologized for the well-documented segregationist views he expressed and the race-baiting he encouraged during the earlier part of his public career.
His statue, alongside Tillman’s, suggests that even as the Confederate flag has been lowered in South Carolina, the state has not fully reckoned with its racist past.
Tillman’s statue was dedicated in 1940, at a time when his fellow Democrats and political supporters controlled the State House. Although Tillman’s statue possesses no reference to race, it is likely that it was erected with a dual intent of honoring Tillman and symbolizing the continued power of segregation within the state.
Thurmond’s statue was dedicated in 1999 — three years before the end of his Senate career — in an effort to control the narrative of his legacy after decades of public service. This move effectively cleansed Thurmond of his segregationist past. This cleansing was again apparent when, in 2004, the South Carolina General Assembly decided to include Thurmond’s African American daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, in his list of children on the base of the statue.
Although the controversy over the display of Confederate statues continues unabated — as vividly apparent during the Charlottesville violence last August — statues of 20th century figures have been largely neglected. Tillman and Thurmond fought for the sentiments of white supremacy that then dictated large swaths of American history. The sooner this is remembered, the sooner contemporary racism can be challenged more effectively.