SC Gov. McMaster takes side on Strom, but not on colleges’ push to change building names

Laveta Brigham

As a powerful movement builds across South Carolina to remove the names of monuments to racists and segregationists from university buildings and public squares, the state’s top elected official has so far been publicly silent on whether a 20-year-old law preventing those erasures without support of a super majority of […]

As a powerful movement builds across South Carolina to remove the names of monuments to racists and segregationists from university buildings and public squares, the state’s top elected official has so far been publicly silent on whether a 20-year-old law preventing those erasures without support of a super majority of legislators is just or should be repealed.

But Friday, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman gave the first indication of where the governor and former state attorney general stands on the Heritage Act, which says only a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly can remove or change war monuments and the dedication of roads, parks and other public spaces to historical figures.

“Boards of universities have every right to ask for these changes — that’s why the law exists as it does, and the governor is supportive of them doing so and the General Assembly debating them, with public input, as they have done in the past,” Brian Symmes, the governor’s spokesman, said in response to a request by The State newspaper.

The governor’s stance in support of following the law comes as South Carolinians have joined in national Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded for air.

In the wake of those protests, two S.C. universities — Clemson and Winthrop — are asking the state Legislature to remove the name of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a notorious racist who publicly defended lynchings, from campus buildings. Trustees of a third school, the University of South Carolina, also voted Friday to ask lawmakers to remove the name of gynecologist J. Marion Sims, who experimented without anesthesia on enslaved women, from a women’s dorm.

Support also is building, including among former USC athletes, to remove the name of Strom Thurmond — a segregationist, former governor and longtime U.S. senator — from the campus wellness center. And some state lawmakers are saying it’s time to repeal the Heritage Act altogether, allowing decisions about monuments and memorials to be made on the local level.

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, tweeted on Wednesday that when the Legislature returns to work in January, he is willing to help his colleagues “do what I can, where I can, to help bring our state together … particularly on the issue of race. While I’m not qualified to know what symbols are most offensive, I’m for local governments and universities having the ability to make decisions they feel best for their diverse communities.”

Meanwhile, some legislative leaders are reluctant to address the university’s requests, setting themselves up for a collision with the universities and the coalition of supporters echoing their wishes.

It’s in moments like this that governors can help move the needle, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, noting that millions of protesters across the country are crying out for better treatment for Black Americans.

“The value of the bully pulpit, quite frankly, is to rile public opinion in my view,” Cobb-Hunter said, adding when “public opinion is riled consistently enough, then we (the General Assembly) tend to take action.”

“It lends gravitas to the movement,” Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop poll, told The State on Thursday. “It basically kind of lets the public know that this isn’t one individual member of the Legislature or another, turning on the caucus.”

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Using the bully pulpit

Five years ago, then-Gov. Nikki Haley faced circumstances that in some ways were similar to current events but even more personal.

In 2015, nine Black parishioners, including a state senator, of “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were shot and killed by a white supremacist who joined their Bible study, a stranger welcomed into their loving arms. The killer, Dylann Roof, had posted a racist manifesto online with pictures of himself posing with the Confederate flag.

Cries to remove the flag and resistance from GOP leaders ensued.

Less than a week later, Haley called on the Legislature to remove the flag, a reversal of her position expressed just months before the shooting: that business leaders visiting the state never talked about the flag and that the state’s election of Haley, its first Indian American governor, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Black Republican, were signs of racial progress. Haley said she would call lawmakers back to Columbia should they choose not to return.

Haley’s support of removing the flag, despite a years-long effort by Democratic legislators and a past governor, helped give cover to some Republicans still on the fence.

Governors can help shift public opinion on controversial issues. And because they don’t have much power in South Carolina, the ability to use the bully pulpit to influence hearts and minds and move legislators to act is one of their main tools.

“When it comes to the rankings of power of the governor, the bully pulpit is the one of the main things they have,” said Dave Woodard, an emeritus professor at Clemson University. “They don’t have appointed power. Getting in the public and doing something like that, that’s their main power. And it works. It works sometimes.”

A governor weighing into controversial debates also can turn perilous.

In 1997, then Gov. David Beasley’s proposal to remove the flag was defeated by the Republican-held S.C. House.

‘’I think he’s suffering grave political damage out of this,” former and then-state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who later would support bringing down the flag in 2015 but has defended the Heritage Act, told the New York Times at the time.

Beasley, who only served one term before losing his seat to a Democrat, now runs the United Nations World Food Programme.

“It’s a big political risk for the governor to go and do this, because sometimes you can fail,” Woodard said. “Oftentimes, it does fail. If you don’t make it, then you get branded as somebody who couldn’t get things done and you’ve got to wear that. And, you can get ignored on other issues. There’s a real risk.”

Less than one month after Haley’s announcement, following a rapid and contentious battle in the Legislature, the Confederate flag was removed from its perch on the State House grounds and retired to a museum. The move ended a bitter effort critics of the flag had fought for decades.

Fast forward to recent weeks: State lawmakers are facing pressure to remove controversial monuments and building namesakes.

In addition to efforts by Winthrop, Clemson and USC, the city of Columbia removed a statue of Columbus and the city of Charleston’s leaders plan to vote on whether to take down its statue of slavery defender John C. Calhoun from Marion Square.

In Columbia, sights are being set on Thurmond.

On that historical figure, whose name is ubiquitous in public spaces and institutions across the state, McMaster has taken a side.

McMaster does not support renaming the Strom Center, Symmes said. However, the governor does “support South Carolinians on every side of the issue voicing their positions. But those positions ultimately need to be debated by their elected representatives” in the General Assembly, he added.

Power in the Legislature

Boards of the public universities have voted to ask the state Legislature to amend the Heritage Act, a 2000 law that protects the removal or change of wartime monuments, memorials, including those named for African Americans and Native Americans. The law also protects the names of public buildings and spaces dedicated to historic figures.

The authority the statute gives lawmakers extends all the way down to the local level, disallowing cities or counties from making changes on their own.

Entirely repealing or giving exemptions to the Heritage Act in 2020 will be no easy feat for lawmakers.

Lawmakers are slated to return to Columbia only twice this year to take up emergency issues put off as COVID-19 swept the state.

On Tuesday, they return to debate a $1.9 billion spending bill for COVID-19 relief. In September, they will return to finish writing and pass a brand new budget and other legislation.

The General Assembly’s sine die agreement — which dictates when and for what lawmakers can return to work — does not include the Heritage Act, and legislators say there is not enough consensus among lawmakers yet to change the agreement.

The Governor’s Office also says legislators’ time back could be better spent than dealing with the Heritage Act.

“Given the shortened session and what is still on the General Assembly’s plate, including all coronavirus-related issues, amending the Heritage Act this year is likely not the best use of their time,” Symmes said. “But the governor is always open to having public debate about how to improve our state going forward.”

The Senate’s most powerful lawmaker posted a Twitter thread this week echoing a similar sentiment.

“We’re working to solve the mysteries of COVID-19, why so many of our people are getting sick and why the virus is affecting the African American community disproportionately,” tweeted Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

“We’re working to help our businesses reopen and restart our economic engine and employ our citizens. We’re working to protect our unemployed through funding our unemployment insurance. We’re working to ring the school bell and refill our classrooms in K-12 and higher ed … We’re working to cover the entire state with broadband to make available virtual learning and telemedicine to all our citizens, not just the lucky ZIP codes … We’re working to stop our universities from unfairly filling slots with out-of-state students, which has a negative impact on in-state minorities. We’re working to save our HBCUs … We’re working to turn our good cop/bad cop situation into a good cop/good cop situation.

“Changing the name of a stack of bricks and mortar is at the bottom of my to-do list,” Peeler tweeted.

The State reached out to other State House leaders, including House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who did not respond by press time. But Thursday, Lucas launched a new committee chaired by leaders that will focus on law enforcement and sentencing changes.

Any serious debate about the Heritage Act likely will wait until 2021.

“There’s nothing that we can do next week or any subsequent session because of the sine die resolution,” said Cobb-Hunter, who supports repealing the Act. “And I don’t think there’s an appetite to amend the sine die resolution to include this. But we need to talk about it now so that by January there is at least an illumination about the importance of symbolism and the role it plays in systemic racism.”

Many proponents of removing controversial statues and building names, however, want to strike while momentum is hot, worried that by 2021 the energy will be gone.

“People are sick of it,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “If South Carolina is not going to do its part in recognizing, in particular, the impact African Americans had, then we can’t continue to keep up statues of oppression.”

Rutherford on Tuesday called on South Carolina universities to, on their own, remove the names and memorials for controversial South Carolinians, calling the Heritage Act unconstitutional, a position several lawmakers have taken and one that a legal challenge could help decide.

On Friday, a state representative asked the S.C. Attorney General’s office for an opinion on whether the Act is constitutional.

Rutherford credited the city of Charleston’s leadership in its proactive effort to take down the John C. Calhoun statue from a prominent square. In his announcement this week, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he believes the Act does not apply to the Calhoun statue.

“If a law is immoral or unjust, then people should revolt against it,” Rutherford said, criticizing the university leaders for not taking a more aggressive steps to solve their own problems.

“It’s their duty. Asking the General Assembly to do something in December may have an impact, but to do something when we’re out of session, … is disingenuous. I’m not going to let them pass. That’s why I called them out. University of South Carolina and Clemson, you’re not going to be on the national stage riding the backs of 65 African American kids out there playing football and act like all you did was pass it off to the General Assembly and have that be enough. It’s not.”

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