Five years ago today, a white neo-Confederate shot dead nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church, located just up the street from where a statue honoring John C. Calhoun—who in an 1837 speech famously deemed the enslavement of black human beings “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good”—has stood for more than 130 years in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina.
On Wednesday afternoon, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg announced his plan to send a resolution to the City Council to remove the monument—a move long overdue. In the same speech cited above, Calhoun stated, “never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” In other words, Calhoun believed the brutality and horror of slavery was the best thing that ever happened to black folks in this country.
And in 1887, white Charlestonians let black folks know how much they agreed with Calhoun by putting up a statue in his image. Even the statue’s location at the Old Citadel, once an arsenal and a guardhouse to literally shoot down any uprising of enslaved black folks, is imbued with white supremacist terror and violence.
Black Charlestonians have been trying to knock Calhoun off his pedestal ever since. When the original Calhoun statue went up, it stood about 45 feet off the ground. There at Calhoun’s feet was another statue—the figure of a woman who was supposed to represent Justice. One year after the monument’s dedication, the Justice figure was found with a tin kettle in her hand and a cigar in her mouth.
In 1892, someone painted the face of the Justice statue white. A young black boy named Andrew Haig was arrested for shooting at the Justice statue with a pistol in 1894. And in early 1895, there was so much activity around the Calhoun monument that a park keeper was hired to stop “the nuisances and depredations now committed by goats, boys, and night prowlers.”
Charleston civil rights worker and educator Mamie Garvin Fields was born one year after the Calhoun statue was erected. In her memoirs, she wrote, "We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose—because he looked like he was telling you there was a place for 'niggers' and 'niggers' must stay there. I believe white people were talking to us about Jim Crow through that statue.”
The original Calhoun statue was finally removed on Thanksgiving day in 1895. A local newspaper reported that, as the statue was being taken down off its plinth, a group of young black boys standing nearby “skillfully pasted Mr. Calhoun in the eye with a lump of mud.” The new statue of Calhoun that went up in 1896—the figure that still stands there today—was put atop a pedestal 115 feet off the ground, far out of the reach of would-be protesters.
As Fields wrote in her memoir, “Children and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn't get to him.”
South Carolina’s Republican lawmakers have done the dirty work of making sure that the Calhoun marker, as well as 175 monuments to Confederate traitors, remain standing. (Calhoun died in 1850, before the Civil War, but his ideas formed the core of Confederate secessionist ideology.) In 2000, GOP legislators passed the state’s Heritage Act, legislation that—like the Calhoun monument itself—served as a retaliatory action against the most minor of civil rights gains and challenges to white supremacy: the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse dome to another flagpole on the statehouse lawn.
Members of the Charleston City council have already publicly stated they have the votes to take the statue down, but they may have to contend with those lawmakers and that law.
Here’s hoping defenders of the Confederacy and all those associated lose the fight. Again.