Only 30 of the state’s current 170 legislators cast votes 20 years ago on whether the state should protect monuments from removal. That means more than two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly have yet to weigh in on the controversial Heritage Act that effectively prevents any changes to public memorials.
The Heritage Act, put into law in 2000 as part of a compromise to move the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome, has made recent headlines as protests around the nation seek to address systemic racism and police brutality. For protesters, monuments of Civil War soldiers, slavery proponents and others that fill courthouse squares and parks are visible reminders of the so-called “lost cause” of the Confederacy.
“Let’s take that statue down,” Charleston Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard said of Charleston’s John C. Calhoun statue earlier this month in response to national protests.
On Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the slaying of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white nationalist, the city’s mayor, John Tecklenberg, and officials said Wednesday vowed to remove Calhoun’s statue from land owned by a militia organization with state appointees.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin announced last week that the city’s statue of Columbus was put in storage indefinitely, saying it would prevent the statue from being dismantled by protesters. In Virginia, protesters have toppled statues of Christopher Columbus and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and a monument to a Confederate artillery unit.
The Heritage Act passed 37-6 in the Senate April 12, 2000, with two members not present in the Senate and one member not voting. Eleven senators who served in the chamber in 2000 are there today.
The following month, House members voted 63-56 to pass the act on May 10, 2000. Two members were absent in the House and three members did not vote. Sixteen House members who voted on the bill in 2000 serve in the legislature today, three others now serve in the Senate.
The law passed as a compromise to deal with the Confederate flag after years of tension over its continuing presence at the Statehouse. Some analysts point to Republican Gov. David Beasley’s 1998 reelection loss to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Hodges was because of Beasley’s call to take down the flag.
The Heritage Act did the following:
● Moved the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome to a Confederate memorial on the Statehouse grounds;
● Removed three battle flags from the inside of the Statehouse;
● Created an African American monument at the Statehouse; and,
● Mandated that any future decisions regarding memorials on public property must be decided by a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate. Those memorials include African American and Native American, and those commemorating wars, including the Civil War.
The two-thirds vote mandate has been used only once in 20 years. Five years ago, after a white supremacist gunned down nine black people in a Charleston church, the legislature gave into a groundswell seeking to remove the remaining Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in 2015 he would not make any further considerations under the act during his tenure. Lucas also voted to approve the original Heritage Act.
Of the 30 who cast votes in 2000 and remain in the legislature, 17 voted for it and 13 voted against it. Twelve of those dissenting votes come from current House members.
Start of a process
Democrats in the Senate today say that in 2000, they saw the Heritage Act as their one chance to remove four Confederate battle flags from the Statehouse and they took it — knowing that it would be the start of a long process.
The original bill was sponsored by Charleston Democratic Sen. Robert Ford, a longtime civil rights activist. The flag went up on the Statehouse dome in 1962, as a commemoration of the Civil War’s centennial. It would remain there for 38 years before Ford’s legislation ultimately brought it to the Statehouse lawn.
Hopkins Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson said it “pained” him to go to the Statehouse and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the Confederate flag in the Senate chamber.
For years, Democrats had tried and failed to gain Republican support to have the flags removed. After an NAACP boycott of the state, Charleston Republican Sen. Glenn McConnell, who later became lieutenant governor and president of the College of Charleston, worked with Ford on a compromise bill that would lower the flag, remove the other flags and protect other memorials. Both men no longer serve in the General Assembly. Ford resigned his seat in 2013 and later pleaded guilty to misusing campaign donations.
“You're protecting the Confederate monuments but also African American monuments,” Ford told Statehouse Report. “That’s the way the legislative process works, but 25, 30 years later you can’t act like you're mad.”
Jackson said the deal was the “start of a process.”
“Isn't that what compromise is about? That no side is a clear winner,” he said. “I knew eventually one day that flag would be removed from the dome, and removed from the yard one day also. I am even more fortunate to have been in the General Assembly to have witnessed that. It thrills me to see the debates as it related to abolishing the Heritage Act.”
Democrats in the House, who battled the bill on the Statehouse floor, still believe it is a problematic law.
“It was clearly problematic at the time, and we know you cannot bind future assemblies and that's exactly what the Heritage Act sought to do,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said. “I thought it ignored history and what we know about South Carolina’s history.”
Rutherford urged Charleston officials to move forward not to wait for the General Assembly to act.
‘The rebels will yell’
Many of the Republicans who voted on the bill — for and against — did not return calls seeking comment this past week. But a few had their speeches on the floor in 2000 inserted into the official legislative record in the House and Senate journals. Here is how they explained their votes:
● Gaffney Republican Sen. Harvey Peeler voted against the bill, saying he loved the flag for his heritage. “You have the hate group and the heritage group. The heritage group, of which I am a member, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, see the flag as I see the flag with honor and respect.” He closed his speech with: “If you take that flag down tonight, in the morning, the rebels will yell. Race relations will not be the same in this state in my lifetime if you take that flag down.”
● U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson, R-District 2, served in the Senate at the time and voted against the Heritage Act. “I disagree with the compromise,” he said. “I feel very strongly about the wonderful and positive heritage of the people of South Carolina. Another concern that I've had is the divisions between the races in South Carolina.”
● Walhalla Republican Sen. Thomas Alexander voted for the bill. He commended his colleagues for discussion on the issue that has been “very heavy upon our hearts.”