In 2000, South Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature begrudgingly agreed to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Capitol dome. The vote was essentially a bit of legislative sleight of hand, since it merely relocated the flag to a slightly less vaunted — and even more visible — position on Statehouse grounds. The trade-off for this “concession” was the South Carolina Heritage Act, which made it illegal to remove or alter any public monument honoring the Confederacy without two-thirds supermajority approval by the General Assembly.
With the passage of that law, neo-Confederate state legislators successfully disenfranchised South Carolinians who oppose Confederate statuary, stripping entire communities of the political power to demand its removal. How fitting, in a kind of perfectly grim symmetry, that the same legislation that protects South Carolina’s Confederate monuments also disempowers the majority of its black citizens — just like the Jim Crow laws those markers celebrate.
There are 175 Confederacy monuments around South Carolina, most of which were erected in the 50 years after Reconstruction — the 12 years after the Civil War when Union troops ensured formerly enslaved folks were briefly granted the most basic claims of citizenship, such as voting rights and political access. In 1877, when the federal government abandoned both the South and the protection of its African-American inhabitants, white South Carolinians vigorously dedicated themselves to the reestablishment of absolute white power and black subjugation. White racist resentment against the modest progress African Americans made during Reconstruction fueled the relentless campaign of terror that followed. At the ballot box and elsewhere, through Jim Crow laws and lethal violence, black folks were prevented from exercising their civil rights. That suppressive effort was visibly manifest in monuments to the Confederacy, erected in numbers across this state that made evident the white supremacist zeal with which they were put up.
Black South Carolinians, of course, were allowed no input about having these markers populate public spaces through which both African Americans and whites moved. Their voices in opposition to the erection of tributes to the Confederacy — a nation whose own founders explicitly cited black slavery as its founding principle; whose Constitution prohibited all laws blocking “the right of property in negro slaves” — were silenced by the ever-present threat of racial terror violence. Like African Americans throughout the South, they were forced to live amongst Confederate idols, which often stood on towering pedestals, strategically placed near courthouses and statehouses, where they functioned as reminders of the racial order and tacit warnings not to step outside of it. Black Charlestonian teacher and civil rights activist Mamie Garvin Fields wrote about how black Charleston in the 1890s regarded the statue of John C. Calhoun, who infamously proclaimed slavery a “positive good.” “As you passed by,” Fields noted in her memoir, “here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘N*gger, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.'”
Well into the 20th century, Confederate monuments remained a keystone of white South Carolina’s retaliatory response to black folks’ meager Reconstruction-era civil rights gains. Just over 10 years after Northern troops left the state, the Calhoun statue was dedicated, one of dozens of symbols of white defiance against black equality. The same principle was at work more than 160 years later when South Carolina’s neo-Confederate legislators governed from a place of anger about the movement of the Confederate flag from one part of the Statehouse to another. Despite having already achieved a victory for the status quo, the illusory threat of black racial progress provoked a legislative whitelash in the form of the Heritage Act. That law, held up against the backdrop of history, reveals itself as a modern update to a very old American idea. The Newtonian law of white supremacy is that for every black civil rights step forward, there must be a retaliatory push back.
The Heritage law today keeps standing Confederate statues that black South Carolinians have overwhelmingly wanted removed since they were first erected. Even under the chokehold of Jim Crow, Fields wrote that African Americans in the late 19th century would “carry something” to protest the Calhoun statue through defacement — “scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose.” Given neither political nor social recourse, this was the only way to resist. Opposing the presence of figures who fought for and vocally defended the evils of black enslavement should not have been an act that could get you killed then. Speaking out against the continued presence of those figures today should not be considered anything other than moral now.
We are a nation of laws, as we are so often reminded when those laws are broken. But we are also a nation with a lengthy history of unjust laws, carefully crafted to silence, dominate and exclude. The Heritage Act, which discounts so many voices before they can be heard and counted, is a prime example of such legislation. And ultimately, that’s one of so many reasons it should be overturned.
Kali Holloway is the senior director of the Make It Right Project.