The reaction to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg's plan to amend, not remove, the city's Confederate-related monuments has received a mostly warm welcome — at least so far.
Of course, the debate isn't expected to get fully heated until the scope, text and design of the proposed changes becomes known. And that's at least a few weeks away.
Tecklenburg said he would like the city to add new plaques and language to several monuments in an effort to "tell the whole story." The effort could begin with the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square.
When Thomas Bennett Salley of James Island read about the idea, he welcomed it.
Salley is a descendant of Calhoun's family, and his grandmother Norma Edwina Carrer was chosen to unveil the Calhoun monument in 1896 because she was identified as his closest surviving relative.
"I think John Tecklenburg's idea about putting some information on the monument would be good as long as it’s fair and balanced," Salley said. "You know, the good and the bad.”
Salley said he would disagree with any plan to remove the towering monument.
"You can’t erase history. ... That would just stir up more anxiety and hate,” he said. "The two extremes have to come together in the middle and love everybody.”
Henry Siegling, commander of the Washington Light Infantry, released a statement saying that group, founded in 1807, would oppose any effort to remove monuments from Marion Square. The state deeded the square property to the infantry and other local militia groups in 1832, and the infantry and Sumter Guards still own it.
"History is history — good or bad, but our history it is," he said. "The United States of America is a neophyte on the world stage. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we did not, but it is our history regardless. Removal of statues will not change that."
He noted the Calhoun statue belongs to the city, as does the plot of land underneath it. When City Council accepted that ownership, he said, it pledged to "watch over and keep it as a priceless treasure and sacred trust."
"It is our hope that the city continue to honor it pledge," Siegling added.
Elliott Smith, a downtown Charleston resident and attorney, was skeptical of the mayor's idea.
"If you truly understand the lived experience of people of color, when it comes to living with these symbols, adding an explanatory plaque seems like a drop in the ocean," he said, adding he thinks Confederate-era history belongs in museums and books.
"The argument tends to be, ‘You can’t erase history.’ Well, no one is talking about erasing history," he said. "These are celebratory monuments that glorify (the Confederacy)."
City Council is expected to consider Tecklenburg's proposal, but few appeared eager to say much Thursday. City Councilman James Lewis said he had not formed an opinion yet, and attempts to reach five other council members by phone were unsuccessful.
The Rev. Joe Darby, first vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said on Wednesday that he would support explanatory plaques in front of Confederate monuments if they specified they were "'Racists who pushed the Civil War.'"
Shakem Amen Ahket (Johnathan Thrower) of the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement and James Bessenger, chairman of the South Carolina Secessionist Party said they endorse Tecklenburg's proposal to add historical context to the monuments.
"We believe it to be in the best interest of Charleston and South Carolina to learn from our mistakes, embrace them, and ensure that future generations fully understand them so as not to repeat them," said Bessenger.
Ben Bunting, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans H.L. Hunley Camp in Summerville, said he thinks that Tecklenburg’s approach could work.
“I commend that effort,” he said, lamenting the recent destruction and removal of many Confederate monuments across the country. “I do believe it’s a matter of education.”
Bunting said monuments being taken down “under the cover of darkness” in other cities only appeases certain people, not the majority.
“This has been motivated or started with the approval of the local governments but not necessarily with the approval of the local populous,” he said. “Governments are creating these situations by enforcing actions by duress, without having an open exchange of ideas or referendums.”
Bunting said the Confederate monuments and battle flag should not be associated with white supremacists or neo-Nazis. He said most Southerners see them as tributes to a region's veterans and individuals and are part of long family histories.
But most Confederate-themed monuments have strong ties to white supremacism, said Adam Domby, a College of Charleston history professor who is working on a book about Southern monuments. Most weren’t erected right after the war but several decades later, after Reconstruction had ended, Jim Crow was the new law and whites were firmly in control again.
“We assume this is about the Civil War, and these monuments really aren’t about the Civil War,” Domby said. “When they were put up, they were really about a reassertion of white supremacy over the landscape and asserting physically what already had been asserted politically.”
Amending them with new language that tells a larger story will likely be problematic, he said.
First, Domby said those writing the new language must decide whether to provide more information about the subject of the monument or about the time in which it was erected — or both.
Also, changes to monuments could be either new plaques or wording attached to monument, so that they appear as if they’re part and parcel of it — or they could be interpretive signage nearby.
“One is celebratory and one is educational,” he said. “Whether that will be enough will depend on each community.”
Domby said it’s a hard line to draw to provide additional information without upsetting some.
“These monuments are history as much as they are memory. They have political power and they still do or we wouldn’t be having these debates,” he said. “We’re dealing with larger issues about race and racism and the meaning of the past, and this is the current battlefield in those culture wars.”
Abigail Darlington and Cleve O'Quinn contributed to this report.