Charleston officials stood at the foot of the Calhoun monument on Wednesday and vowed that the city will take steps to remove the statue to the Confederate forefather next week. The move could set up a challenge to the state's Heritage Act, which protects war and civil rights memorials.
Mayor John Tecklenburg's announcement came on the fifth anniversary of the white supremacist attack one block away at Emanuel AME Church that claimed nine lives.
"At this point, it’s important for our citizens to know," Tecklenburg said, "That we are taking this action only after careful consideration of the facts of Mr. Calhoun’s life, the explicit duty of care that our city assumed when it formally accepted ownership of the statue in July of 1898, and the state law known as the Heritage Act, which forbids the removal of war-related markers in South Carolina."
Tecklenburg said Charleston City Council will consider a resolution at their June 23 meeting. The pre-announcement was an attempt to keep the process open, the mayor said — City Council agendas are generally published at the end of the week before the meeting. The resolution appears to have near-unanimous support, according to members' messages to Charleston City Paper.
For years, politicians have theorized that the state's Heritage Act protected the monument to Calhoun, who died 10 years before the Civil War, but whose racist pro-slavery rhetoric laid the groundwork for secession in his home state of South Carolina. Nonetheless, Tecklenburg says the current efforts are backed up by city records.
"And with that legal and historical research now complete, we are confident that, because the statue belongs to the city and rests on ground owned by a private entity, our council has full authority to order its relocation to a setting where it can be placed in its full historic context. We are also confident that it is simply the right thing to do."
Any resolution before council would not carry the force of law, but Tecklenburg said it would be considered to establish "the solidarity of our City Council."
Marion Square, where the monument sits, is owned by remaining elements of the historical militia organizations known as the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guards that date back to the Revolutionary War. The current Calhoun monument was erected in 1887.
The Heritage Act was adopted in 2000 to remove the Confederate flag from the flagpole on the dome of the South Carolina Statehouse to a smaller display in front of the capitol. The law also established protections for monuments to Civil War and civil rights figures that made it difficult for local governments to alter monuments. In 2015, weeks after the Emanuel attacks by a white supremacist who revered the Confederate banner, the legislature removed it from the Statehouse grounds entirely.
Under the Heritage Act, a two-thirds majority of both the state House and Senate are required to make changes to monuments. A simple majority is required to pass other legislation.
At a press event earlier Wednesday, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford urged Charleston officials to take action. "Don’t wait for the General Assembly to act," he said.
Under the governance principal of Home Rule, Tecklenburg said, "We should have the right on the local level to make those decisions." It's up to lawmakers who have challenged the constitutionality of the law the make changes, he said. The state attorney general's office has not responded to inquiries about whether they would challenge the statue's removal.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie is co-chairman of the city's new Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation, set to evaluate and make recommendations to root out structural racism within the city's purview.
"No longer will this council have its head in the sand while our children bear the brunt of this evil," Gregorie said at the press conference Wednesday. "The removal of this statue is just the beginning … This commission will attack racism with a vengeance unprecedented in the City of Charleston," Gregorie said.
Tecklenburg would not give a timetable for the statue's removal or details on where the monument would be placed.
Support the Charleston City Paper
We’ve been covering Charleston since 1997 and plan to be here with the latest and Best of Charleston for many years to come. In a time where local journalism is struggling, the City Paper is investing in the future of Charleston as a place where diverse, engaging views can flourish. We can't do it without our readers. If you'd like to support local, independent journalism:
Charleston City Paper Staff
Charleston City Paper Staff