When someone asks me what Charleston is, to explain a place as complicated as this, I tell them to go to the top level of the Marion Square parking garage. Looking out across the cityscape, one sees the steeple of Emanuel AME directly behind a giant statue of John C. Calhoun and the Holocaust Memorial. I then ask them to try to reconcile these disparate and competing narratives in their mind, to imagine how they might coexist together in a unified way.
I ask this because it’s impossible. And once one understands this, they can begin to understand Charleston.
On Aug. 15, the National Action Network and the Charleston branch of the NAACP called for repeal of the Heritage Act and the removal of the Calhoun monument from Marion Square. Later that day, city council passed a resolution introduced by Mayor Tecklenburg that vows to “stand shoulder to shoulder with those in Charlottesville . . . united against those who seek to divide us” and to “reject racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, the KKK, neo-Nazis, domestic terrorism, and hatred.” On Aug. 18, Mayor Mike Signer issued a statement calling for the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville; initially, Signer felt that the statue of Robert E. Lee should remain in a public park and be contextualized, but he experienced a sea change after attending the memorial of Heather Heyer, who was killed by a domestic terrorist, saying that the Lee statue’s “historical meaning now, and forevermore, will be of a magnet for terrorism.”
On Aug. 16, the day after proposing his anti-racism resolution, Tecklenburg demonstrated that his rejection of white supremacy exists in words only; instead of standing in solidarity with Black community leaders (a trend, it seems, given his filibuster of Councilman James Lewis’ resolution to hire a firm specializing in racial bias to audit the Charleston Police Department), he offered a decidedly spineless solution: Confederate monuments should remain in our public spaces, but be amended with plaques that offer further historical context.
I imagine Mayor Tecklenburg may have taken this position in hopes of preventing the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, but this hope is misguided because white supremacy is violence, a teeming hatred that does not necessitate provocation. Charleston knows this all too well. To propose a compromise regarding monuments that glorify the Confederacy — that were erected in order to terrorize Black people and show them the war was over, their subjugation would continue, that are still being used as a rallying point for white supremacists because this was their purpose from the start — is not only patronizing, but dangerous.
If we don’t explicitly disavow white supremacy through both our words and actions, we implicitly condone it — there is no middle ground.
In his resolution, Tecklenburg vowed to “commit to ensuring that Charleston remains a place of love and grace, where hate is not, and will never be, welcome.” I challenge him to reevaluate his stance on the Calhoun monument, to follow the lead of NAN and the Charleston NAACP and, in doing so, to truly stand in solidarity with Charlottesville. I challenge him to think about who these statues welcome, whether these are the very people whose message he rejected in his resolution. I challenge him to contemplate what effect white supremacy has upon unity, whether harmony can exist when racism looms 115 feet in the air over the people of this city. I challenge him to ask himself what these monuments represent, whether they serve as edifices of hate or love. I challenge him to understand that compromise is complicity when it comes to white supremacy, and that complicity is hate. And I challenge him to see love as action, to learn that love must sometimes be divisive before it is not.