Charleston is on the verge of turning a stories-high monument built in honor of John C. Calhoun, probably South Carolina’s most prominent and effective proponent of slavery, into an illustration of what compromising in the face of evil looks like.
Just as other cities and counties are grappling with what to do with Civil War-era monuments dotting the public landscape, Charleston decided against removing them to museums and other designated areas designed to preserve history in all its complexity. The city instead commissioned a group to come up with contextual language to add to them. The idea, in the abstract, is a sensible one. In practice, it seems anything but. The Calhoun statue, standing atop a 115-foot pedestal, drives that reality home better than any other memorial commemorating that time.
It sits a few-minutes-walk from Emanuel A.M.E. That’s the historically black church where white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black people during Bible study – a church that sits on a street also named after Calhoun in a city where Confederate cadets began the Civil War, to preserve slavery forever, by firing upon a federal fort. Just a couple of years after Roof reminded the world about the ugly power of Confederate-era inspired white supremacy, Charleston’s Commission on History decided against an opening sentence on a plaque that would have read: “This statue to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) is a relic of the crime against humanity, the folly of some political leaders and the plague of racism.”
Why? Because the commission decided not to include anything that would “inflame people,” Commission Chairman Harlan Greene told the (Charleston) Post & Courier.
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That’s why the plaque, if approved by the Charleston City Council, is likely to begin with Calhoun’s long career as a legislator and political actor who championed states’ rights and nullification before a line that says he argued that slavery was a “positive good.” Never mind that the Civil War began in part because men like Calhoun objected to the right of Northern states to no longer cooperate with the Fugitive Slave Act. Even in 2017, the damage Calhoun did to his country, first as a passionate proponent of our nation’s original sin, then as a man whose influence helped convince men to take up arms against their own country, is soft-pedaled to ensure that those who might be offended by the unvarnished truth won’t feel put upon.
The Charleston commission tried to appease everyone: South Carolinians standing in praise of men who enslaved or raped or beat or murdered millions of fellow human beings during slavery, and those who believe such men should not be publicly honored in 21st century America. But all it did was prove there is no splitting the baby on an issue such as this. Either we will honor Confederate-era heroes with public monuments in modern-day America or not. We can’t skirt the issue with a few well-intentioned yet ill-conceived words.