Some years ago, when I was living in downtown Columbia, I would take late-night walks down Main Street to the Statehouse on warm spring or summer nights.
On the vast grounds around that impressive granite capitol, I could walk in reflective silence among the trees and statuary. The monument to the Confederate soldier was here, as well as the monument to Confederate women. There was the monument to Gen. Wade Hampton, sitting upon his great anatomically correct steed, and the more modest bronze image of James F. Byrnes, sitting in judicial robes, a book of law open across his lap.
And there was the other statue which haunted those silent grounds and haunted my conscience. Benjamin Ryan Tillman stood there, larger than life, on a stone pedestal, near the front entrance to the Statehouse. Just stood there in his great bronze overcoat, arms by his sides, fists clenched, glowering down at the world.
That’s pretty much the way he went through life, actually. He was an angry, violent man in an angry, violent time, and he rode those emotions to fame and power and a place on the Statehouse lawn.
Tillman was a paramilitary fighter who waged war on the biracial, federally supported state government of Reconstruction. He was present at the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where black activists were captured and murdered by the “Redshirts.” The Reconstruction government collapsed later that year.
Ben Tillman was an ambitious and instinctive politician who hijacked the state Farmers Alliance and rode it to the Governor’s Mansion in 1890. As champion of the common man — meaning, of course, the common white man — he was instrumental in the creation of Clemson College and Winthrop College (now universities), as alternatives to the more elite College of South Carolina (now USC) and The Citadel. (He called The Citadel a “dude factory.”) He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1895 and served until his death in 1918.
Throughout his long political career, he was an outspoken white supremacist who used his considerable oratorical gifts to rouse white resentment against black people. As governor he organized the state constitutional convention of 1895, which disenfranchised blacks and established the segregation laws which stood for 70 years.
Tillman was remarkably honest about his means and his ends. On one occasion he proclaimed, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
Another time he said, “We have done our level best [to disenfranchise blacks] …We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
This is the man who has welcomed visitors up the concourse to the front of the Statehouse since 1940. I used to fantasize about backing a pickup truck onto the grounds, tossing a rope around Tillman’s neck and yanking him off that pedestal. On a quiet summer night in those pre-9/11 days, I could have probably done it and gotten away. Now that may not be necessary.
Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) has introduced a resolution to remove the statue from the Statehouse grounds. In a counter measure, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble (another Democrat) has proposed putting a plaque on Tillman’s pedestal which would give a more balanced assessment of the politician’s legacy.
College of Charleston historian Jack Bass favors the second measure.
It’s a “complicated” issue, Bass says in a telephone interview, and Tillman was a “complicated” figure.
“Without question, Ben Tillman was a racist,” Bass says, but he only reflected the views of the vast majority of Southern whites at the time. When he wasn’t on the stump, Tillman actually spoke and worked quietly against lynching. And, the professor adds, Tillman was willing to work with blacks when it was necessary. As governor, he created S.C. State College, in Orangeburg, to educate blacks.
Tillman is “a significant historic figure in South Carolina,” Bass says. “To remove that statue is to obscure that part of our history.”
Perhaps, but I don’t buy it. The facts Bass cites do not atone for the damage Tillman did to a large number of people and to the democratic process in South Carolina. I think it’s time to take the old demagogue down from his pedestal and pack him off to some museum. That’s what museums are for — to serve as repositories for those ideas and objects we no longer use or cherish, but whose historic or cultural significance we recognize.
I think that’s a fair description of Ben Tillman in the 21st century. He should be remembered, not enshrined.