Could Controversial Statues at State House be Removed?

There's a renewed call to bring down some controversial historical markers.

Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Lawmakers in South Carolina are taking a stand on both sides of the controversial statue issue that’s sparked a debate across the nation.

One of those statues is the Ben Tillman monument that’s been standing since May of 1940. The politician was a former governor of South Carolina in the 1890's but Representative Todd Rutherford says the statue has no place at Tillman's old office.

"In modern day times, he would be a terrorist. Ben Tillman actively advocated for the killings of Negros. He believed black people shouldn't be voting. He believed that black people had no place in our society and believed they should be killed," said Rutherford.

With the recent events in Charlottesville, where a woman was killed in a clash with white nationalists who protested the removal of a Confederate monument, there's been a debate whether certain monuments should still stand if they cause racial tension. Here in South Carolina, the Heritage Act protects certain monuments like the Ben Tillman Statue from being taken down. But to be removed, the House and the Senate would have to have a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to remove it.

A similar process was needed to take the Confederate flag off the grounds of the State House in 2015.

"I'm going to present a bill and we're going to talk with my other Republican colleagues, what exactly is going to be in that bill but again my position is we need to talk about our history. We need to know what our history is so we don't repeat it. We don't need to act like it didn't happen," said Rutherford.

The new piece of legislation would address removing statues at the State House like Tillman and Marion Sims, who Rutherford says is known as the father of gynecology but experimented on African American slaves.

He proposed back in 2008, with the help of Senator John Scott, that the Tillman Statue should come down. He wa unsuccessful then, but he's hoping for a different result now.

We reached out to the South Carolina House Speaker Rep. Jay Lucas, and he says he stands with his statement from back in 2015.

The statement says: " The South Carolina House of Representatives will not engage in or debate the specifics of public monuments, memorials, state buildings, road names or any other historical markers. The General Assembly, the House in particular, made it abundantly clear during the debate of the confederate flag that the only issue they were willing to discuss was the placement of the battle flag on the north lawn of the State House… Debate over this issue will not be expanded or entertained throughout the remainder of my time as speaker."

James Bessenger, the chairman of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, doesn’t have a personal opinion on the Ben Tillman statue, but doesn’t believe statues should be taken down just for historical reasons.

“It's an important story to tell. It's a part of our state's history. We can't start going around and tearing down monuments just because the person is controversial. You keep those things around to remember these people in historical context. All because we have a statue of him, doesn't mean we think he's a wonderful person but he still has a story to tell,” said Bessenger.

Bessenger says he doesn’t condone the events that happened in Charlottesville, but says lawmakers across the country are trying to take advantage of the situation.

“What happened up there was disgusting on both sides. Both sides are to blame for what happened. I think it’s just another springboard to come after Confederate monuments,” explained Bessenger.

When January rolls around, Rutherford hopes he has enough support from other lawmakers to bring the issue inside the chambers and start the discussion.

"I think South Carolina went a long way when we removed the Confederate Flag, there's no doubt about it. It removed that place on South Carolina's grounds where people can come and exercise hate. But I think if this is not going to be a place of hate, let's talk about our history and let's talk about it openly and honestly," Rutherford explained.

A bill cannot be presented until the General Assembly goes back in session in January.

© 2017 WLTX-TV


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