On April 30, 2000, former Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. did something that was tremendously unpopular with Confederate flag supporters. It was on that day that the former mayor embarked on his “Get in Step With South Carolina” campaign, a march from Charleston to Columbia to protest the battle flag’s continued presence atop the statehouse dome.
The march was as bold and visionary as it was controversial and dangerous. According to Brian Hicks’ excellent biography on the former mayor, Riley had to wear a bulletproof Kevlar vest for protection as he was met with hostilities from flag-waving, pro-Confederate South Carolinians along the way to Columbia. The South Carolina Legislature did not remove the flag at the conclusion of Riley’s march, but the former mayor’s position on the flag was firm and resolute. He wanted the flag down. Fifteen years later, when the flag was finally removed from a position of prominence at the statehouse altogether, there is no question that the political path to removal had been inspired and partially cleared by Riley’s position years before.
Contrast Riley’s clear and unequivocal stance on the flag to current Mayor Tecklenburg’s plan to install plaques on Confederate monuments rather than seek their removal. What if Riley and South Carolina legislators had advocated a similar compromise for the Confederate flag after the Emanuel Nine massacre? The answer is simple: the flag would still be there.
Whether one believes Confederate monuments celebrate white supremacy or that they evidence a proud Southern heritage, this much is clear: Charleston benefits from clear, moral leadership in periods of racial turmoil. This is what Mayor Riley provided after Dylann Roof murdered nine innocent parishioners two years ago, and what he also provided nearly 18 years ago during his march to Columbia. It is this type of clear leadership, in his effort to please all sides, that Mayor Tecklenburg is sorely failing to provide with his non-solution compromise on Confederate monuments.
The effort to end slavery faced far greater odds when abolitionists spoke out against the institution in the mid-nineteenth century. White Southerners also reacted angrily and with passion when efforts to end legal segregation in schools began gaining traction, or national efforts to stop the lynching of African Americans in the South. During each flashpoint of racial progress, there have been angry mobs blasting the need for change and violently targeting those who advocate such changes. Those groups are no different than the white nationalists who organized in Charlottesville a few weekends ago, or the hateful trolls online who attack individuals advocating for the removal of Confederate monuments. As consistent as the opposition by white supremacists and their sympathizers to progress has been, it only has been when groups of all races come together in the name of peace and racial unity that the change sought has eventually come to pass.
Thus it was that even current Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton could allow begrudgingly that the Confederate flag should have come down since, in her words, its symbolism had been co-opted by hate groups. She seemed to believe that the flag had been turned into a symbol of hate by Dylann Roof in 2015. Mayor Riley knew, as many now know about Confederate monuments, that it had become a divisive symbol of hate and white supremacy long before that. Mayor Riley’s efforts over the placement of the Confederate flag in Columbia presaged the battle over Confederate monuments today. Rather than take on his predecessor’s courageous mantle for change, Tecklenburg has sought the easy way out.
Despite his failure to take a clear moral stance, and despite the spirited protestations by Confederate sympathizers, the trend to remove Confederate monuments has already begun. Mayors in Richmond, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charlottesville have already courageously acted on their convictions that monuments erected in defiance of the civil rights movement belong more in museums than places of honor. Even though Mayor Tecklenburg does not have the power to unilaterally remove these monuments from the city, he does have the power to make an emphatic statement, at a crucial juncture, as Mayor Riley did 17 years ago. But he has revealed that he is not that type of leader. By trying to make everyone happy rather than taking a firm position on this issue, he is failing the most important test of his administration thus far. And by choosing to put up plaques rather than remove the monuments, he has already made a choice to support their continued presence.