COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the South Carolina Legislature apparently refusing to let Greenwood change its war memorial, which currently segregates the list of dead soldiers in two world wars to “white” and “colored,” the fight could be moving on to new territory in the courts.
The issue is intertwined with how the first state to secede from the United States honors the Confederate flag and the rebel nation’s soldiers, as well as a push that Clemson University is resisting to rename a major campus building named in honor of virulent segregationist and former governor and U.S. Senator Ben Tillman.
Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams raised $20,000 of private money to put new plaques on the American Legion owned memorial on city property on Main Street that would list the soldiers killed in World War I and World War II in alphabetical order. He was stunned when he found out just weeks before a Martin Luther King Day ceremony to put the new plaques on the 1929 memorial that the law South Carolina passed in 2000 to move the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome and to a pole on the capitol’s front lawn meant he would be breaking the law.
The law requires a two-thirds vote from the Legislature to relocate, remove or alter any war memorial. It was passed in large part to protect Confederate monuments during the anger over the flag debate 15 years ago. Opponents of changing the plaque said the law is doing what it was supposed to do — prevent people from altering history without a true consensus. Supporters say they aren’t changing history, just making sure black soldiers who died for their country aren’t diminished because of their race.
A bill was filed to get permission to make the change. It has gone nowhere. Sen. Larry Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Greenwood County’s legislators are split over it and he fears the proposal might lead to a larger debate about Confederate symbols the 36-year veteran of the South Carolina Legislature isn’t ready to have again.
“It’s an old wound that I’d really not rather open up again,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
The issue isn’t going away. Neither Welborn or Charles Schulze, a member of the executive committee of the American Legion Post that owns the monument and approved the effort to change the plaques, plan to quit the effort to change the memorial.
“I’m a bulldog. I’m going to see that thing through,” Schulze said. “We’re going to accomplish this goal, even if some people don’t like it.”
Welborn or Schulze wouldn’t say if one of those steps might be a lawsuit. While the 2000 law, called the Heritage Act, hasn’t been challenged in court, the state Attorney General has written at least five separate opinions on it in the 15 years since it passed. They are advice and don’t carry the weight of the law.
The opinions have all come to the same conclusion. The law is broad, covering even a memorial to military members who served on submarines during the Cold War, according to a 2012 opinion that said the Patriot’s Point museum near Charleston couldn’t move the memorial without lawmakers’ permission.
State attorneys in a 2001 opinion also said the law gives not just governments, but private owners of memorials like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, permission for the protection and care of the monuments. That could come into play in a possible court challenge, because in an opinion in February, state attorneys wrote that enforcement of any violation of the Heritage Act would have to take place in the courts and be filed by a party with legal standing, like the owner of the monument.
The South Carolina Legislature has given permission to alter monuments before. Both the House and Senate in 2013 unanimously approved allowing North Augusta to move its World War memorials so the city could create a centralized place to honor veterans.
Schulze said he thinks Greenwood’s effort is struggling because lawmakers might try to include changing the name of Tillman Hall at Clemson University into the bill.
Sen. Billy O’Dell, R-Greenwood, who represents about 11,000 of Greenwood County’s 70,000 people, said he is against changing the plaques on the 1929 memorial because he thinks it is changing history. But he thinks the brand new plaques sitting in Adams’ office could be used for a new memorial at Greenwood’s recently built veterans services building.
“Who’s going to pay for a new monument? I had to raise a lot of money to get this done,” Adams said. “The state can solve this very easily, if it doesn’t let all this other stuff get in the way.”