Earlier this month a Charleston writer took out a full-page advertisement in The State, the daily newspaper of Columbia, SC, calling for the removal of a statue of former governor and US senator Ben Tillman from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
Will Moredock has long advocated for the removal of the imposing statue of Tillman, an unabashed racist who perhaps more than anyone else in South Carolina came to embody the evils of post-Reconstruction racism.
Pitchfork Ben Tillman never hid his hatred for blacks or his efforts to maintain white supremacy.
“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,” he said in 1900. “We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
Tillman’s populist rabble-rousing and first class demagoguery got him elected governor in 1890, turning out the conservative Bourbons, and he was re-elected two years later.
In 1894, he was appointed to the US Senate, where he served until his death in 1918, and he never missed a chance to voice his narrow-minded sentiments.
Tillman is said to have pioneered the use of race to mobilize white voters, and historian James M. McPherson has claimed that Tillman “created the model for two generations of Southern ‘demagogues.’”
To be certain, there is a good bit of “presentism” evident in today’s interpretation of history – that is, the reading of modern notions of morality into the past.
But while one would expect most Southern whites of Tillman’s era, and, in fact, most 19th century whites in any region of the US, to have believed themselves superior to blacks given the times in which they lived, Tillman was a “Negrophobe” of the first degree, and never missed an opportunity to exploit race for his own advantage.
As early as 1937, eminent historian Francis Butler Simkins wrote that “the modern reactionary attitude toward the Negro dates from Ben Tillman and represents one of the most significant ways in which he influenced American life.”
In South Carolina, Tillman’s most lasting “reform” was his effort to convene the 1895 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in a new state constitution, replacing one adopted in 1868, a decidedly more democratic document that was written during Reconstruction and passed by a black-majority Legislature.
The 1895 Constitution disfranchised blacks and established white supremacy in several ways, including the use of registration and residency restrictions, according to Cole Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina Political Science professor.
For example, to register a potential voter had to be a state resident for two years, a county resident for one year, and a precinct resident for four months, and to have paid a poll tax six months in advance.
Perhaps even more important, county vote supervisors retained discretion to register or refuse to register a voter. Until Jan. 1, 1898, potential voters were required to read a section of the state Constitution or understand it when read to him by the registrar, according to Graham.
After that date, prospective voters had to read and write any section of the constitution to the registrar’s satisfaction and show he owned or paid taxes on property worth $300 or more. A number of other reasons for disfranchisement existed, such as being charged with adultery, Graham added.
These efforts succeeded in disenfranchising blacks across the state, according to Moredock.
“With the black majority off the voter rolls, whites were able to deprive them of education, economic opportunity and equal protection of the law through a system of racial apartheid loosely known as Jim Crow laws,” he writes at his website www.downwithtillman.com.
While the document’s voting restrictions have been overturned, the 1895 Constitution has held the South Carolina back in other ways for nearly 120 years.
For example, instead of a government based on separation of powers, South Carolina state government has for more than a century been dominated by its Legislature.
Tillman, to ensure that no black or, to a lesser degree, upper class Bourbon governor ever got too much power, made certain that the chief executive had as little power as possible, while the state’s Supreme Court justices – including its chief justice – were elected by lawmakers.
And legislative leaders over the many decades since the 1895 Constitution went into effect have largely strived to keep a tight grip on their power.
Despite the fact that the 1895 Constitution has been amended more than 330 times, it remains in effect, and that doesn’t appear set to change anytime soon.
While the issues relating to the state’s constitution may seem arcane, the vitriol Tillman directed towards blacks was ugly and unwavering.
In 1901, after educator Booker T. Washington dined in the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, Tillman said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.”
And nothing inflamed Tillman more than the thought of a white woman being “violated” by a black man.
“There is only one crime that warrants lynching, and Governor that I am, I would lead a mob to lynch a negro that ravishes a white woman,” he said in 1892. “I do justify lynching for rape, and before Almighty God, I am not ashamed of it.”
The bottom line, in Tillman’s eyes, was that the black man, in Tillman’s own words, “must remain subordinate or be exterminated,” according to Stephen Kantrowitz’s 2000 book Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.
It is difficult to fathom what is more surprising: That state leaders were so utterly tone-deaf toward approximately one half the state’s population in 1940 that they saw nothing wrong with the erection of a statue to Tillman just a generation before the Civil Rights Movement took off, or that today there is still so little discussion about whether the Statehouse grounds is an appropriate locale for a statue honoring one of the genuine bad guys of South Carolina history?
(Top: Statue of Ben Tillman on Statehouse grounds, Columbia, SC.)