Calling for the removal of the controversial John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square, Charleston area activists gathered at its base Thursday night to sing and speak of ongoing racial disparity.
The event attracted more than 100 people and was part of a national movement to bring down Confederate-related monuments.
The organizer behind The Make It Right Campaign said those who gathered shouldn't be seen as protesters.
"We did not come here to be combative or instigate, we came here to elevate these beautiful voices of Charlestonians that have often been ignored and talk about the history of resilience and the actively suppressed," campaign director Kali Holloway said. "We are assembling peacefully. It's art activism, and it allows like-minded artists to talk about the impact of growing up and living in the shadow of the monument."
The Make It Right Campaign helped bring down the Silent Sam Confederate statute in Chapel Hill, N.C., in August, and campaign supporters are eyeing nine more — including Charleston's Calhoun monument.
Holloway said she doesn't expect a statute that's "been up for more than 100 years will come down in 100 days" and that her group's work needs to be a sustained campaign.
Calhoun was a former vice president. He advocated for the institution of slavery and justified how states have the legal right to secede. Though he died before the Civil War began, his writings helped inspire the creation of the Confederacy.
In August 2017, Mayor John Tecklenburg asked the city’s History Commission to draft revised historical markers and new monuments across the city to create a more balanced narrative of the city's Confederate-related history. A first proposal for a new Calhoun monument plaque described the statute as "a relic of the crime against humanity." That proposal was later watered down.
A formal plaque has not been voted on, and discussion at the City Council level has stalled.
Even if it had not stalled, South Carolina's Heritage Act promises an uphill battle for any local governments seeking to remove or amend Confederate monuments. The act says such steps require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
Tecklenburg said Friday he isn't sure organizers "understand the Heritage Act is somewhat of a controlling factor here in South Carolina."
Still, he said, efforts to address the Calhoun monument will resume once the city has hired its first director of a newly created office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance. Tecklenburg said he is considering new language for a monument plaque but wants to include the director in the discussion before moving forward. The city expects to make the hire by July 1.
Meanwhile, Tecklenburg said he is working to address other sites around the city to acknowledge the horrific treatment enslaved Africans were exposed to, such as at the Work House that once stood next to the old City Jail.
Those organizing Thursday's event found some sympathetic ears.
Miles Walsh has lived in Charleston for the past 13 years and previously lived in Chicago. He drives a pedicab and saw an advertisement for Thursday's gathering on the bikes. He said removing the monument would be a "symbolic victory" for equality.
Nakeisha Daniel grew up in Atlanta but spent much of her childhood in Charleston visiting where her mother and grandmother grew up. She said she agreed to sing a song during the event because the issue is dear to her family history. She said Charleston is "convenient" about the history it celebrates.
"There's still an underlining current of unease," Daniel said. "It's gotten better, but it still runs through the heart (of Charleston)."
But not everyone who attended the gathering supported the cause.
Timmy Drose, a Charleston native, said he attended to defend the statue and was critical of those who sang and spoke.
"This isn't anti-white supremacy, this is anti-white," Drose said. "They're trying to take something from white people. This is a war on white people."
He said things have changed so much that black residents receive more help with housing, food and health care than whites. He said he feels his wife, who is sick and hospitalized, would receive better treatment if she were black.
One man held a sign that read "Show me where the statute hurt you."
The gathering was done in collaboration with the Redux Contemporary Art Center and was the second in the Standing/Still series. The next is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. June 19 at Redux, 1056 King St.