Calhoun monument

In 2015, workmen removed graffiti from a statue of John C. Calhoun in Charleston after it was painted with the words “racist” and “slavery.” 

It takes a pretty ornery guy to cause this much trouble nearly two centuries after his death.

But John C. Calhoun, the curmudgeon-on-a-stick in Marion Square, was nothing if not unpliable.

Charleston City Council last week punted when asked to vote on a plaque that would add historical context to the Calhoun monument. Odds are they will never take action, because it’s just too divisive.

Which is something this city, and country, needs to deal with sooner rather than later.

The four black members of City Council said they were unlikely to support any new plaque for Calhoun, no matter what it said. In shorthand, they made the “lipstick on a pig” argument.

Anyone who doesn’t at least see their point of view is likely missing an empathy gene.

Calhoun was without a doubt South Carolina’s most accomplished statesman — vice president, secretary of war and one of the most notable senators in the nation’s history.

He was also a vile and repugnant racist, who thought slavery was such a good thing it ought to spread across the country.

For that reason alone, the city has to respect the will of African Americans on council and drop this plaque business for now.

The last thing Charleston needs is a vote on anything related to Calhoun that could fall along racial lines.

Needed context

Mayor John Tecklenburg tried to do the right thing.

Last year, cities around the country got on a kick of taking down Confederate monuments — a trend sparked by a significant uptick in displays of overt racism by idiots and so-called white supremacists. Who, let’s be honest, are the best argument to the contrary.

The mayor suggested adding context to monuments in the form of explanatory plaques. For Calhoun, that would include pointing out his horrible views and the times during which his statue was raised.

That was likely the only thing approaching a politically palatable compromise around here. And still a lot of people raised Cain.

Younger folks were mad Charleston wouldn’t simply tear down the statue, seeing as how Calhoun was an unabashed racist — even when gauged by the standards of his time.

And a lot of older, white folks said any change to the monument was an attack on our heritage.

Mind you, most of them couldn’t recite Calhoun’s political resume with a gun to their head, recall his most noteworthy achievements or pick him out of a lineup with Victor Frankenstein and Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

Yes, this is racial for some people. They don't see the other side, or don't care. But there are others who simply don't want anything to change in Charleston. And then there's the faction that argues the monument is part of our history, good or bad.

But Councilman Robert Mitchell, like many civil rights activists, sees that statue as a symbol of the racist ideology he’s fought his entire life.

That is the needed context here.

What's "in the past?"

Mitchell told Post and Courier reporter Abigail Darlington that no words on a plaque are going to make him feel any better about the Calhoun monument.

You’d think Calhoun defenders would understand. They are the same people outraged by the Denmark Vesey statue. Because, you know, his planned slave revolt could have resulted in the deaths of white people.

Well, the slavery that Calhoun championed left generations of an entire race in bondage. Families were torn apart, women raped, men beaten to death. And when they were “freed” they endured another century of Jim Crow laws and ongoing efforts to deny their constitutional rights.

That wasn’t something that could have happened, it did happen. Funny how some people dismiss all that as being “in the past” and say folks should get over it. Meanwhile, they can’t get over Vesey … or the Civil War.

So, Mitchell and some of his colleagues would prefer to see Calhoun’s monument toppled, and it’s hard to blame them. But that is problematic. Even if they could get around the myriad legal hurdles, they would need several other council members brave enough to stand up to cranky constituents.

Bottom line, anything Charleston does is going to infuriate somebody.

Historical context is a well-intentioned compromise, but you can't blame black City Council members for not wanting any part of it. Nor should it be forced upon them. There's been enough of that.

What we really need is for people to understand history, and why others don't consider that monument something worth preserving ... or celebrating. Then things might change.

Unfortunately, far too many folks today are just as hard-headed and lacking in empathy as their standard-bearer in Marion Square.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.