CHARLESTON, SC (AP) – Officials in the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina voted unanimously on Tuesday to remove a statue of former vice president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun from a downtown plaza, the latest in a wave of actions that stem from protests against racism and police brutality against African Americans.
Council members approved measure 13-0 at a late meeting. The resolution authorizes the removal of the statue of the former U.S. Vice President and Senator from South Carolina from atop a 30-foot monument in the center of Marion Square.
City officials eventually said that the Calhoun statue will be permanently placed in “a suitable place where it will be protected and preserved.”
Just before midnight on Tuesday, Charleston police tweeted that “Calhoun Street between Meeting Street and King Street has been closed due to the removal of the statue of John C. Calhoun,” adding that the street will be closed for several hours.
The vote comes a week after the mayor, John Tecklenburg, announced that he will send the resolution to the city council. He also took part in the vote.
“I think we are setting up a new chapter, a more equitable chapter in the history of our city,” Tecklenburg said just before the vote. “We are making the right move. It’s just the right thing for us to do. “
Councilors heard from dozens of residents for and against the removal of the statue. Councilor Karl L. Brady Jr. said he knew that his support could cost him votes, but that he voted his conscience in a move he said shows that, in Charleston, “we are bringing white supremacy and white supremacist thoughts back where they belong – on the axis of history. “
The move comes days after the fifth anniversary of the murder of nine black parishioners in a racist attack on a church in downtown Charleston. It also comes as cities in the United States debate the removal of monuments to Southern leaders and others after the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota.
The final resting place of the statue has yet to be determined, a decision left to a special panel. The mayor had expected to go to a local museum or educational institution.
Last Wednesday, when Tecklenburg announced his plans to remove the statue, dozens of protesters closed their arms around the monument and shouted, “Take it down!” Video posted on Twitter also showed drawing and spray painting the monument. Police said they had been arrested several times for vandalism and eventually closed off the area at night.
In the heart of downtown Charleston, Calhoun towers over a sprawling square frequented by locals and tourists alike, which is a frequent venue for festivals and major public events. Several organizers recently said they would no longer use the space while the statue remained.
About 40% of enslaved Africans came to North America through the port city of Charleston, which officially apologized for its role in the slave trade in 2018. In its resolution, the city says the statue, which has been in place since 1898, is “ seen by many people as something other than a memorial to the achievements of a South Carolina native, but rather as a symbol that glorifies slavery and as such a painful reminder of the history of slavery in Charleston. ‘
Calhoun’s support for slavery continued. He said in several speeches on the US Senate floor in the 1830s that slaves in the South were better off than the free blacks in the North, calling slavery a “positive good.”
Tecklenburg said the removal is not covered by the South Carolina Heritage Act, which protects historic monuments and building names, because the memorial is not on public property or commemorating any of the historical events mentioned in law. According to the National Parks Service, the city technically rents the land where the monument stands, which “should remain open forever as a parade ground for the Sumter Guards and the Washington Light Infantry.”
So far, Tecklenburg’s interpretation has not been legally contested. A two-thirds majority of the state’s general assembly is required to make changes under the Heritage Act, an arduous task in a state where conservatives dominate the home and senate the last time they removed the southern flag from the Statehouse grounds in 2015.
At a Statehouse press conference on Tuesday, Governor Henry McMaster described the Heritage Act as a “good state law” and a “deliberate process unaffected by passion and time.” When asked about Tecklenburg’s claim that the law doesn’t apply in this case, McMaster – a former prosecutor – called it a “legal question” and added, “It depends how you read the Heritage Act, and there are people that read it in different ways. “
Several black legislators are urging local governments and colleges to act independently and defy the monument protection law, as it contains no sanctions and no judicial challenge has been taken, and several intend to do so.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
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