Two sides, one past

A plaque that honors World War I soldiers on a Greenwood County memorial splits the soldiers killed into “white’ and “colored.” File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

A circuit judge has ruled that the South Carolina Heritage Act shouldn't stop efforts to modify a war memorial in Greenwood that would remove the racial distinctions of the soldiers listed on it. 

Judge Frank Addy's seven-page opinion stops short of declaring the Heritage Act unconstitutional and instead bases the decision on the First Amendment rights of the American Legion Post, which owns the memorial.

Still, Charleston lawyer Armand Derfner, who represented the plaintiffs, said the ruling amounts to "the first nail in the coffin of the Heritage Act."

The Heritage Act passed in 2000 as part of a compromise to remove the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the Statehouse. It also prohibits the state, counties, cities and towns from removing or altering war monuments and memorials without a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly.

While the Greenwood War Memorial sits on land owned by the city, the monument is privately owned. 

The memorial honors servicemen from that area who died in World Wars I and II as well as in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but because the nation's armed forces were segregated until after World War II, the servicemen who died in those wars are listed under the headings of "white" and "colored."

A bill that would allow Greenwood and the American Legion to replace the plaque with one that doesn't list their race failed to get far in Columbia last year.

Officials with the S.C. Attorney General's Office could not be reached late Friday for a reaction to the Addy's ruling. The attorney general was a defendant, along with House Speaker Jay Lucas and Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant.

As other cities such as New Orleans, have removed Confederate monuments, the Heritage Act has cooled off such efforts in South Carolina. The city of Charleston has sought to amend its towering monument to John C. Calhoun, whose writings helped justify the state's decision to secede and start the Civil War, but City Council was unable to agree on any change.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.