Catherine Templeton (copy)

Catherine Templeton, Republican candidate for South Carolina governor, addresses the 2017 South Carolina Republican Convention in Columbia. File/Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — Catherine Templeton made waves in her first public forum as gubernatorial candidate by saying she is “proud of the Confederacy" and pledged “we’re not going to rewrite history” by removing Confederate monuments.

Templeton's comments late Tuesday upset black leaders in the state, who are still stung by the racially charged mass shooting at a Charleston church two years ago and the vicious fight to remove the Confederate battle flag from the S.C. Statehouse grounds.

“I don’t think she understands the diversity we have in South Carolina and that we’re not all a bunch of flag-waving yahoos,” said Joe Darby, the AME Church's presiding elder over the Beaufort District. “When you elevate the Confederacy, you stomp on the memories of those who were subjugated, the slaves. She’s stomping on my ancestors."

Templeton, a former two-time state agency head running in her first campaign, spoke Tuesday at a Republican town hall meeting in Pickens County, a conservative area bordering North Carolina and Georgia with the state's smallest percentage of black residents.

A man who identified himself as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans asked Templeton about her views on “Southern heritage and Southern defense” after other states have removed monuments and memorials. The issue remains sensitive in South Carolina since lawmakers voted in 2015 to remove the battle flag from the Statehouse grounds after Dylann Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist, killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. 

Templeton’s answer was blunt.

“Not on my watch. I don’t think there’s anything else to say about it,” Templeton said. “You cannot rewrite history. I don’t care whose feelings it hurts. You cannot rewrite history.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants in South Carolina,” she added. “And it’s why we are who we are, where we are. And I very much respect the men who gave their homes, their fortunes and their lives to put us in this position. Fortunately, we have a law, too, that protects us, and I’m sure it will be enforced.”

State law requires two-thirds approval in the Legislature to remove historical monuments. Templeton was asked later if she would have voted to taken down the flag if she were a member of the General Assembly at the time. 

“I think what we did was we reacted,” Templeton said. “I think that’s what happens in government a lot. We have an emergency, and we create a response because it’s the only thing we have control over. 

“I’ve already said and mean it from the bottom of my heart that I’m proud to be from South Carolina, I’m proud of the Confederacy. But I’m not going to second guess what the people in the Statehouse did when I wasn’t there," she continued. "I live in Charleston, and I drive by Mother Emanuel on a daily basis. And a bad person took something that’s dear to us, took our heritage and turned it into hate. And I think we acted as a result.”

Templeton’s consulting firm, Brawley Templeton, was among dozens of businesses to praise then-Gov. Nikki Haley and the Legislature in 2015 for removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“Thank you to the Palmetto State leadership for respectively placing our history where it belongs, the moral courage to truly respect the differences of one another and the ability to come together to achieve greatness as a community, rather than as individuals,” read a statement sent the day the flag was removed.

Templeton also said during the town hall she would back a bill to ban removing any historical monuments. Several monuments on the Statehouse grounds honor leaders who worked to prevent equal rights for black South Carolinians, including former governor and U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman.

“I would not allow monuments to be taken down,” she said. “We’re not going to rewrite history.”

Reached Wednesday, Templeton, whose father was named after a relative wounded for the Confederacy in the Civil War, did not back away from her comments at the town hall.

“I am who I am because of my ancestors,” Templeton told The Post and Courier. “I’m proud of my family, and that doesn’t make me a racist. History may make us uncomfortable, but it made us who we are.”

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said Templeton is not alone among politicians in her showing support for the Confederacy 152 years after the Civil War ended. She said she believes Templeton’s main foe for the 2018 Republican nomination, Gov. Henry McMaster, shares her views.

"We have two candidates that give NAACP heartburn,” Scott said. “We’re continuing the same mindset that brought us Dylann Roof. Dylann Roof did not rewrite history. He was reflecting history the way it is.”

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said the leading Republicans for governor now have issues involving race: McMaster is a member of a country club with no black members and now Templeton is trying to appeal to racist tendencies of voters. No Democrats have announced bids for governor next year.

"It's extremely sad. It's evident that neither lives in the 21st century," Robertson said. "The governor of South Carolina is the governor for all people. At the end of the day, I can't fix dumb-ass."

Asked Wednesday about Templeton’s remarks, McMaster, a former lieutenant governor and state attorney general, said, "I am very happy to be a South Carolinian, and I think that particular issue has been discussed and resolved, and I think everybody I know who lives in South Carolina is very happy to be a South Carolinian. We're very proud of ourselves."

Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain is Columbia Bureau Chief for The Post and Courier. He was editor of Free Times and was a reporter and editor at The State, The Charlotte Observer and The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News.