There’s been considerable recent debate on The Post and Courier’s Opinion pages about the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston’s Marion Square. A recent letter writer called Calhoun a white supremacist and a racist, another writer objected to that characterization and a recent op-ed urged consideration of Calhoun’s governmental career in properly depicting his life and work.
It might be helpful to allow Calhoun to speak for himself -- he did so in a U.S. Senate speech on Feb. 6, 1837. Calhoun said: “We of the South will not, cannot surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races inhabiting that section of the Union is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both.”
Calhoun said, “It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, it has grown up with our society and institutions and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people, but let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races, in the slaveholding states, is an evil. Far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be, to both, and will continue to prove so, if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition.”
Calhoun said, “I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came upon us in a low, degraded and savage condition, and, in the course of a few generations, it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, as reviled as they have been, to its present comparative civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of still the exaggerated takes to the contrary.”
Calhoun said, “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good - a positive good.”
Calhoun’s words drip with the ugly, ignorant and patronizing rhetoric of white supremacy, reflect a level of racial prejudice that grew and hardened as he aged and epitomize the beliefs that still fuel American racism and that inspired those who seceded from the United States of America a decade after his death to fight the Civil War.
One of his senatorial colleagues understood that. When Calhoun died, abolitionist Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton was urged to honor him with a eulogy in Congress. Benton vehemently refused and said, “He is not dead, sir, he is not dead. There may be no vitality in his body, but there is in his doctrines.”
Calhoun’s statue -- the second one -- towers over Marion Square because the first one was closer to the ground and easier for black Charlestonians to deface because of outraged anger at the role that he played in the brutal subjugation of them and of their ancestors.
John C. Calhoun was a member of Congress and served as Secretary of State and as vice president. He was also a slaveholder who used his public offices to champion the right of the individual states to allow people to “own” kidnapped Africans and their descendants, and who articulated his belief that my ancestors were an inferior species that somehow “benefited” from being raped, beaten, castrated, maimed, tortured and lynched.
I reject the argument that Calhoun’s views on white supremacy and the “virtue” of slavery should be placed in the context of his time and measured against his governmental career. That’s like taking a big bite out of a bright and shiny apple, while disregarding the worms poking their heads out of it.
John C. Calhoun was a racist and a white supremacist, and his statue should not continue to stand in a prominent public space. The only good “compromise” is to take it down and involve those who cherish his memory in choosing a suitable venue for its more appropriate display.
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP and senior pastor at Nichols Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.