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SC Republicans draft harsh penalties for local officials who take down historic monuments

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Crews work to remove the statue of John C. Calhoun from its perch in Marion Square on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — Under one proposed law a South Carolina Republican plans to introduce next month, any local politician who votes to take down a historic monument would be immediately charged with a misdemeanor and suspended from office.

Another bill would fine that same city or county councilman $25 million.

Meanwhile, S.C. Democrats are preparing their own series of proposals to take down certain controversial statues and begin studying what to do about others.

Those are the kinds of bills that are filed at the Statehouse after the racial unrest seen last year.

Statues of historic figures have been removed by local authorities or forcibly toppled by protesters in cities across the country in the months since a Minnesota Black man, George Floyd, died at the hands of police in May, sparking a national reckoning over racial injustice.

The movement bled into South Carolina, where the city of Charleston in June removed the 123-year-old bronze statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, an ardent defender of slavery, from its perch atop Marion Square. That same month, the capital city of Columbia cited fears of vandalism in removing a statue of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer whose four Spanish-funded voyages to the Americas preceded centuries of slavery and the extermination of native populations, though he never set foot in the continental United States. 

Now, as the General Assembly prepares to return next month for a new two-year legislative session, lawmakers from both parties are filing at least nine bills that seek to dictate the future of historic monuments across South Carolina.

None of them stand a great chance of passing in the face of intense disagreement over how South Carolina should recognize its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and racial inequities.

Many Democrats see monuments to certain S.C. figures as celebrating notorious racists. Many Republicans view them as reminders of the great achievements of imperfect men who lived at a time when the unacceptable was the norm.

Some members of each party share concerns about where the slippery slope of removing monuments might lead, especially as statues of former Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were torn down in cities over the summer.

Another wrench in the debate is the Heritage Act, the 2000 law that makes such monuments almost impossible to remove.

The state Supreme Court has been asked to re-evaluate whether that law is even legal. It blocks the removal of historic markers that honor wars, war heroes, Native Americans and African Americans without the approval of a supermajority of the General Assembly.

That’s a high hurdle that has rarely been cleared — most recently in 2015 when the Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after the racially motivated massacre of nine Black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

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One of the bills planned by S.C. Democrats would remove a monument to “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a former governor who advocated the killing of Black people, from its place on the Statehouse grounds, where it overlooked protesters over the summer.

“In light of everything that has occurred around our country, we need to be more cognizant of those we are honoring,” said state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, the bill’s chief author.

Republicans, meanwhile, say removing statues is unproductive and erases a history that should not be forgotten.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, filed a proposal that would expand already robust protections for monuments. 

H. 3249 would make it a crime for local politicians to remove public statues and cut off critical state funding for cities and counties that do so.

“I simply believe it is important to protect our history, to learn from history, good and bad,” Taylor said.

If that's the case, Rose said, more statues need to be affixed with plaques acknowledging the subject's role in owning slaves or perpetrating racial violence.

GOP Rep. Stewart Jones of Laurens has proposed legislation that mirrors Taylor's. But Jones’ bill also carries a $25 million fine for anyone who votes in favor of taking down a monument.

Both proposals carry questions of constitutionality.

Jones acknowledges his proposal has almost no chance of passage. But the eighth-generation South Carolinian said the bill sends a message that South Carolina is serious about protecting its heritage.

“I think many bills are conversation starters,” he said.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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