American Heritage Association

Brett Barry, president of the American Heritage Association, gives a speech at a rally in downtown Charleston on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, calling for the protection of historic monuments in South Carolina. Gregory Yee/Staff

At the base of an obelisk in Charleston honoring one of the nation's oldest militia units, a group gathered with a message — South Carolina's historic monuments must be saved.

The American Heritage Association held a rally Saturday at Washington Square in front of the Washington Light Infantry memorial to call on the state's gubernatorial candidates to state their positions on the state's Heritage Act. The legislation was passed in 2000 and requires a two-thirds vote by members of the Statehouse for any historic monument to be removed. 

The recently formed nonprofit also calls on the candidates — S.C. Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster — to support an amendment that would require any monument removed without such a vote to be put back up within 90 days. 

"All decisions about monuments are to be made by representatives of the people in the state Legislature and not by lawless groups," said Brett Barry, the organization's president. 

Caroline Anderegg, McMaster's campaign spokeswoman, said the governor supports the Heritage Act "as it is," calling it a smart compromise and a strong law that preserves history while providing an avenue for people to address concerns through their elected representatives.

The debate over the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds in 2015 showed that the Heritage Act works as intended, she said. 

"The governor strongly believes the way that democratic process played out is one of the most important factors in how South Carolina healed in a time of pain," Anderegg said. "That process is required by the law, and the governor believes that any individual or group that chooses to circumvent or ignore the rule of law by removing or defacing any historical monument for any reason must be prosecuted."

A spokesman for Smith's campaign did not comment on the Heritage Act.

For Barry and his group, it is instances where the rule of law is ignored that are concerning. In a short speech during the afternoon rally attended by about 25 people, he referenced recent incidents, such as the August 2018 toppling of Silent Sam, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that stood at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, by protesters. 

Behind 'Silent Sam's' toppling at UNC, a lesson for South Carolina, historians say

"We must be proactive and we must not allow lawlessness to be rewarded," Barry said. "In a city where you cannot change the paint color of a historic home, we certainly could not ever consider the removal of monuments, most of which are over 100 years old and many are works of art."

These proposals have their opponents.

Johnathan Thrower, a Charleston-area activist who also goes by the name Shakem Amen Akhet, said people and groups calling for certain statues to be removed, such as the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square, aren't erasing history and that the monuments themselves have little to do with history or education.

"Monuments are placed up as a show of reverence or a show of respect for a person," Thrower said.

Not everyone deserves that reverence or respect, said James Johnson, state president of the National Action Network. 

Many of the city's Confederate monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era and do not serve to educate the public on history, Johnson said. 

"It was put up in black folks' face to send a strong message: This could happen again," he said.

The National Action Network will fight any effort to strengthen the Heritage Act, Johnson said, adding that there is strong support from the public for taking Confederate monuments, or monuments to figures in American History like John C. Calhoun — one of the key supporters of slavery in the early history of the U.S. and often criticized for his racist views — out of public places like parks. 

"People need to know that this country don't belong to them, only," he said. 

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.