A few weeks ago, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) that called for the removal of the statue of former governor and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Ryan Tillman from the Statehouse grounds died in a subcommittee.
“Pitchfork Ben” was governor from 1890-94 and a senator from 1895 until his death in 1918. During Reconstruction, he was a vocal advocate of killing blacks who pushed for manhood suffrage. He also advocated overthrowing South Carolina’s interracial coalition in the General Assembly.
Tillman was also the impetus behind the 1895 state constitution that institutionalized “Jim Crow” laws and disenfranchised black South Carolinians. Although he claimed to be a friend of the ordinary white farmer, Tillman didn’t do much for this constituency.
In his time, Tillman was one of the most outspoken promoters of white supremacy in America, stating, “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 lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” So there’s that.
Last week, I learned in The New York Times about two films on the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, in which state troopers opened fire on an unarmed group of black student protesters, killing three young African-American men and wounding 28.
The incident is not seared into American history like the 1970 Kent State massacre. Why? Maybe it’s because the Orangeburg Massacre happened at night, well after the deadlines for East Coast newspapers. Maybe it’s because there were no cameras around to capture it on film. Maybe it’s because the victims were African-American and not white college students.
One film, Orangeburg, is tentatively scheduled for broadcast by PBS this coming fall. I say “tentatively” because South Carolinians should recall that The Uprising of ’34 and The Lost Language of Cranes were banned from airing on SCETV for unsuitable content.
Unfamiliar with these program titles? Look ’em up. You might learn something.
Anyhoo, Rutherford, who also has sponsored another bill to remove the current Confederate flag and prevent the placement of others on the Statehouse grounds, says that the Tillman statue “whitewashed” history.
Rutherford, who is African-American, says he learned a more accurate history about Tillman from the late S.C. House Speaker Terry Haskins (R-Greenville), a white man.
Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester) chaired the subcommittee which looked at Rutherford’s bill and killed it by adjourning without a vote.
According to The State, Delleney said, “He was a man of his times, honored by the people of his times … I’m not going to go back and rewrite history.”
You can guess his ethnicity.
I’ve concluded that we as a people very rarely understand all the ways that history affects our lives and that this has a lot to do with the popular belief in American exceptionalism rather than an examination of historical record. People use history to bolster their perceptions without understanding how those perceptions themselves have been shaped by history. Things get ugly when one side maintains that its particular point of view has more merit.
Americans are anxious about our country’s history because it contains innumerable examples of how we haven’t always worn white hats … just ask the Cherokee.
Tearing down statues isn’t the answer. Assembling an accurate record, no matter how ugly, violent and bloody, and letting people reach their own conclusions — that’s how we’ll learn rather than being spoon-fed a sanitized version of the past.