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Charleston mayor to announce future of Calhoun statue Wednesday as groups call for removal

News conference by mayor on monument's future expected on Wednesday

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Calhoun Rivers

The Rev. Nelson Rivers calls for the John C. Calhoun Monument to be removed from Marion Square. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Amid growing pressure to remove the statue to 19th century slavery advocate John C. Calhoun from Marion Square, Charleston officials said they would "make an announcement on the future of the statue" on Wednesday. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council and the city's legal team have been working on the issue "for some time," a statement released Tuesday afternoon from Tecklenburg said. 

It wasn't clear Tuesday night what that future would be, but earlier that day, leaders of civil rights groups and a few state lawmakers demanded the monument's immediate removal. The National Action Network and the NAACP said the Calhoun monument is a symbol of hate and shouldn't receive a position of honor.

"We don't want any more thoughts, we don't want your prayers. We want action," said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, with NAN. "Either you support a monument to hate or you do not."

He said Tecklenburg had called him that morning to say the city would announce Wednesday the memorial's fate. 

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was vice president under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He advocated for slavery as a “positive good” and died in 1850, years before the Civil War.

An online petition calling for the monument to be removed has more than 18,000 signatures.

Other groups are also calling for the monument to be removed. Charleston Wine + Food's organizers said they will not use Marion Square to host events until the statue no longer stands in the park.

Council members reached by The Post and Courier on Tuesday wouldn't discuss specifics of the city's announcement, but said there have been many conversations leading up to it.

"I'm one of the advocates of relocating it," Councilman Keith Waring said. He said he "can't imagine" who would vote against a resolution to remove the monument.

“Right has a way of prevailing, in the end," Waring said. "I think we are in an environment that has elevated this conversation, and the debate about the Heritage Act."

"You count me in the Keith Waring camp on this," council member Ross Appel said. "As far as I’m concerned, the time has come for the John C. Calhoun statue to come down and be moved to an appropriate location. 

"We cannot change our nation’s history, but we can — and must — learn from it," he said.

The state’s Heritage Act is an obstacle to efforts by local governments to remove such monuments.  

The law was part of a compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome in 2000. It forbids removing or changing any war monument or memorial from public property.

The law also prohibits renaming or rededicating public property, including bridges, streets, parks or structures, honoring a historic figure or event. Changing anything covered by the law requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

In the 20 years since it was passed, legislators have only taken up a Heritage Act issue twice, most notably when they removed the battle flag from Statehouse grounds in 2015, following the nine murders at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.

At Tuesday's news conference, Rivers and others called the Heritage Act an unjust law. He encouraged the city to take down the monument in defiance of the law if necessary. 

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he and a few other legislators are working on a bipartisan coalition to draft a bill to repeal the Heritage Act.

He also argued the law is unconstitutional since its provisions can only be amended or repealed after a bill passes with a two-thirds vote on the third reading in each branch of the General Assembly.

Reps. David Mack III, D-Charleston, and Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, echoed Kimpson's words, saying it was time to force the Legislature to do the right thing.

"There's a difference between remembering and reverence," Gilliard said. "(This monument) does not belong 110 feet in the sky."

The leaders at the news conference said the momentum is now there to repeal that act and remove the Calhoun monument and other such symbols.

Clemson University officials have asked lawmakers to allow them to rename Tillman Hall, which is named for S.C. Gov. Ben Tillman, a white supremacist who helped found the school. The University of South Carolina is expected to also ask for permission to rename a dorm named for J. Marion Sims, who experimented on enslaved women.

Previously, the city of Charleston has avoided making any changes to the Calhoun monument. In 2017, council members debated adding a plaque to contextualize Calhoun's contributions.

The plaque’s language underwent several revisions. Initially, the proposed language would have begun, “This statue to John C. Calhoun (1782 - 1850) is a relic of the crime against humanity, the folly of some political leaders and the plague of racism. It remains standing today as a grave reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political career was defined by his support of race-based slavery. Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations.”

After revisions, the final language put forward began by describing Calhoun’s role in state and federal government, while his commitment to slavery was mentioned in the last three paragraphs.

The plaque was never added to the monument, as City Council voted to defer the issue.

Mikaela Porter and David Slade contributed to this report.

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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