[image-1]When young schoolchildren visit the Statehouse in Columbia and read the words inscribed on the base of Ben Tillman’s statue they learn he is a “statesman” and “friend of the common people.” But what they don’t learn, says Charleston writer and City Paper contributor Will Moredock, is that the former governor and U.S. senator was a savage racist who terrorized blacks in South Carolina and became an avatar of white, Deep South demagoguery. Moredock doesn’t want a clarification etched into the statue’s base. Instead he wants it toppled — Lenin-style — and he’s launched a grassroots campaign to do so in conjunction with the start of this year’s legislative session.
“It’s been on my mind for years, and I wanted to do something about it,” Moredock says. “The statue is an obscenity, and it’s an embarrassment to the state — like the Confederate flag to those who have enough sensibility and enough understanding of history to be embarrassed. And I think it should come down as early as possible.”
Moredock has launched the website DownWithTillman.com, and last Tuesday he took out a full-page ad in The State newspaper about it. He’s been sending e-mails and letters to lawmakers in hopes of starting a debate.
On his website about Tillman, Moredock writes how after the Civil War, former secessionists chafed at being governed by the black majority, who until 1865, had been their slaves. “Wearing red shirts, lawless white men banded together into vigilante gangs to ride through the region, terrorizing blacks and disrupting political meetings and elections. Young Ben Tillman, age 29, was a leader of the Edgefield Red Shirts, which went by the name of the Sweetwater Sabre Club,” Moredock writes.
He writes that more than 30 years later, Tillman described the mission of his Red Shirts thusly: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize upon the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provide a riot and teach the negroes a lesson: as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro and carpetbag rule.”
Moredock also tells of how in July 1876, “a contrived confrontation in Hamburg, S.C., between a black militia unit and white vigilante band from Edgefield led to bloodshed.” It became known as the Hamburg Massacre, on July 8, where a white man and several black militiamen were killed “before whites brought in artillery and superior numbers and put an end to it. Some 40 African Americans surrendered and were surrounded by armed whites. Five of them were called out by name and executed.”
Two months later, several Red Shirt gangs converged to slaughter more than a hundred African Americans, Moredock writes. One of them, Simon Coker, a black state senator there to investigate violence against blacks, was captured and two of Tillman’s men were selected to execute him.
“His executioners informed Coker that he was about to die, according to Tillman’s account, and Coker said, ‘Here is my cotton house key; I wish you would please send it to my wife and tell her to have our cotton ginned and pay our landlord rent just as soon as she can,’” Moredock writes. “Then Coker said he would like to pray, and went to his knees. According to Tillman, after a few moments, one of his men said, ’You are too long’ … the order ‘aim, fire’ was given with the negro still kneeling.”
Those are just a few from the Tillman highlight reel Moredock chronicles on his website.
“The more people know about it the more people will be offended and shocked that we have this guy enshrined on our State House grounds,” Moredock says. “I want this effort to generate conversation and debate. I want people to talk about and think about what Tillman represents and what he did and get an insight into our history and what this state is really all about.”
He realizes any effort to remove the man’s statue will be a long fight — a battle to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds has raged for more than a decade — but Moredock is emboldened by a recent move in Georgia. Two months ago, crews pried the bronzed statue of a white supremacist politician named Tom Watson off Atlanta’s Capitol steps and moved the statue into a nearby park. (Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, said the relocation was for safety reasons because the steps were deteriorating.)
The Statehouse grounds in Columbia hosts some pretty unsavory characters when it comes to who is memorialized there. Marion Simms, for instance, a doctor who is called the father of American gynecology, practiced experimental surgery on slave women without anesthesia before operating on upper-class whites. There is Strom Thurmond the Dixiecrat, and James F. Byrnes who defended segregation. John C. Calhoun, The Great Nullifier, stands tall in the Statehouse lobby.
“I think that Tillman is the most evil creature there,” Moredock says. “They have some other antiquated ideas represented there … but Tillman is the only one who actually made war on the people of South Carolina and murdered people to advance his political ends.”
Furthermore, Moredock worries Tillman’s ideas might be still alive under the copper dome of a Statehouse where Republican politicians still work to disenfranchise blacks. On his website, Moredock quotes Tillman as once saying, “We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting] … we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
More than 100 years later, politicians here are still at it, Moredock declares. “Look at what the Republicans are doing at the Statehouse today. They scratched their heads and came up with Voter ID to get African-Americans off the voter rolls, and it’s the same game over a century later,” he says. “It’s the white peoples’ party trying to disenfranchise African Americans.”
It’s unlikely state lawmakers will remove the Tillman statue any time soon. Six years ago, Columbia Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford introduced a bill to do so, but it never made it out of a committee. Moredock says it could take some time. “We’re still fighting over the Confederate flag, that’s been going on for decades,” he says. “[Lawmakers ] have got enough on their plate that will keep them busy, but it has to start somewhere, and this is where it starts.”