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Why a vitriolic Jim Crow advocate is still memorialized on S.C. statehouse grounds

Law enforcement keep watch near the Ben Tillman monument on the South Carolina statehouse grounds in early July. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Confederate flag is expected to be removed from the grounds of South Carolina’s statehouse, weeks after the shooting of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston.

Debate about the flag broke out in the wake of last month’s massacre, though some have noted that it is not the only public symbol that has drawn attention. Also mentioned in the conversation is a statue of Benjamin Tillman, a politician from the state. Here’s a brief guide to Tillman, and the discussion about his monument.

Who was Benjamin Tillman?

Ben Tillman was South Carolina’s governor from 1890 to 1894 and a U.S. senator from 1894 until 1918.

“Ben Tillman was born into a wealthy slaveholding family in pre-Civil War South Carolina. By the time he reached adulthood, slavery was over,” Stephen Kantrowitz, a historian and author of a book on Tillman, wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “He spent the rest of his life trying to reassemble a world in which white landowners were the rulers and black people were subordinate. To do that, he built a social movement of white landowners, which he levered into two terms as governor, then four terms as a U.S. Senator.

“He was frank about his belief that a racial caste system — what we call ‘Jim Crow’ — was necessary, and that only white men should govern,” Kantrowitz continued. “What he wasn’t frank about was that he didn’t much care whether poor white people suffered along the way; in fact, the way he and his colleagues finally disenfranchised black South Carolinians, through property and education qualifications, ended up stripping the vote from many white men as well.”

[S.C. House backs removing the Confederate flag]

The Associated Press recently described Tillman — who was once censured for his role in a Senate fistfight — as “a noted white supremacist who unapologetically advocated lynching any black who tried to vote.”

What can you tell me about his statue?

The eight-foot statue on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse has been standing for more than 50 years. It was dedicated in 1940, and lauds his “life of service and achievement” but does not note his beliefs about race.

[Jenny Horne: How a descendant of the president of the Confederacy helped vanquish his flag]

Tillman’s protégés “dominated state politics,” for decades, Kantrowitz said, which helps explain how the statue came about in the first place.

A building on the campus of Clemson University is also named in his honor, as is a building at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Has this statue been a topic of discussion before?

Yes. A few years ago, Rep. Todd Rutherford introduced a bill to remove the statue, but his effort was (obviously) unsuccessful.

“He was not a guy who should be beloved by most South Carolinians,” Rutherford told the Associated Press at the time.

The AP reported:

Tillman moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1895, unapologetically defending until his death in 1918 his post-Reconstruction tactics to restore white rule in the then-majority-black state by killing any black who tried to vote.
“The purpose of our visit was to strike terror,” he said in the Senate in 1900 about the so-called Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where his militia killed black Republicans. “And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.”
A group of schoolchildren reading the plaques on Tillman’s statue Thursday learned he founded Winthrop and Clemson universities. “He was the friend and leader of the common people,” they read aloud, while taking his picture and marking him off their educational “scavenger hunt” list. Parents acknowledged they knew nothing of Tillman’s racist side.

[6 key moments from the South Carolina Senate debate]

Last year, the Charleston City Paper ran a piece about the monument, headlined: “Ben Tillman was a racist, terrorist, and murderer: It’s time to take down his statue.” In it, Will Moredock, creator of the Web site pushed for the statue’s removal.

“Those are hallowed grounds,” Moredock wrote for Charleston City Paper. “They should be reserved for consecrating the noblest of our citizens, the proudest moments of our history. Clearly Tillman does not measure up.”

What’s the latest?

Tillman’s statue was vandalized with paint in late June. (You can see that in the photo above.)

However, it’s unclear exactly what action — if any — will be taken in the future. A spokeswoman for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told The State newspaper that discussions about the statue and other markers like it were a “less pressing matter” than the Confederate flag, and she has previously separated statues like Tillman’s and the flag itself.

“Monuments in themselves are somewhat museums,” Haley told The State. “If (flags are) flying, they’re living and breathing. … the Confederate flag is something – that if it’s flying – that represents the people, and the State House is supposed to be for all people.”