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City Council, January 9

Induction of Council members
Vote deferred on language at base of Calhoun statue
Marc Knapp

Last night’s meeting consisted broadly of two parts – a farewell to departing Council members and a welcome to the new, and discussion of wording to be placed at the base of the J.C Calhoun statue in Marion Square.

The first part of the meeting was predictable. It was an effusion of gratitude with thanks to God, the Mayor, staff, other Council members, and district constituents. On occasion, it was mixed with hot air. Of the speeches by the departing members, we thought that of Kathleen Wilson was the most notable. It was an appropriate length, thoughtful and sincere. She noted her disappointment on the failure to be reelected but reflected that perhaps it was time for her to move on. She received a warm and loud standing ovation.

The three new Council members were Harry Griffin (replacing Dean Riegel), Carol Jackson, (replacing Kathleen Wilson) and Kevin Shealy (replacing Rodney Williams) They all made speeches as did the three Council members that were reelected – Gregorie, Mitchell and Seekings, the latter two being unopposed. We liked Council member Seeking’s speech best. It had its serious components such as the need to focus on some major problems but it also had something that was lacking in most of the other speeches – humor. He joked of the rewards of serving on Council such as the high pay and the profusion of complimentary e mails. He particularly looked forward to the City sponsored boat winning this year’s Dragon Boat race.

The statue of John. C. Calhoun standing in Marion Square has been an irritant to many but particularly to black folk who took unkindly to his support of slavery. Some wanted the statue removed but others, recognizing his overall contribution to the nation, opposed its removal. Mayor Tecklenberg thought the heat could be removed from the issue by installing a plaque bearing language that would be acceptable to citizens on both sides of the issue. An 11 member History Commission was formed to shape the language and the result was put before Council last night. See below.

This monument to John C. Calhoun (1782 to 1850) erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career. It was erected at a time, after Reconstruction, when most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy, and the state enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are now universally condemned.

Calhoun served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, as U.S. Secretary of War, as U.S. Secretary of State, as a U.S. senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was author of two important works on the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Government.

A member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate” which included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun championed states’ rights and nullification, the right of an individual state to invalidate a federal law which it viewed as unconstitutional.

Unlike many of the founding fathers who viewed the enslavement of Africans as a “necessary evil” possibly to be overcome, Calhoun defended the institution of race-based slavery as a “positive good”.

The statue remained standing today as a reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political positions included his support of race-based slavery, an institution repugnant to the core ideas and values of the United States of America.

Historic preservation to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state’s past.

We suspect that Council would have approved the language had it not been for comments made in Citizens Participation. A number of citizens – seemingly all academics - were unhappy with the text and noted that the proposed text did insufficient justice to Calhoun’s accomplishments. They also thought that only facts should be noted and opinions should be omitted. One speaker stated that Calhoun did not say that “slavery was a positive good” and suggested the record should be fully checked.

The Mayor opened discussion on the issue and noted that it was not possible to please all. He also noted that removing the statue was not an option as it would run counter to SC law.

A spokesman for the Commission said that the text was a good faith effort. The Commission had gone through the text line by line, and each had been approved by a majority of members. He was pressed as to the voting numbers but indicated that there were probably 2-3 members absent from each meeting but the vote was generally 6 to 2 in favor;

Council member Mitchell made the motion to defer a vote and the motion was seconded by Council member Seekings. More work needed to be done.

But as Council member Moody asked, if the issue is deferred, what is the next step? The Mayor suggested the formation of an ad hoc committee containing Council members. Later, somebody suggested the committee should include members of the Recreation Committee.

We don’t know how the ad hoc committee will end up as it remained undecided when the vote was taken to defer. It seemed to us that the vote to defer was unanimous but the P&C said that Council members Gregorie and Waring were opposed. The P&C could well be correct as it seemed both Council members were not happy about any change. Council member Waring wanted to know whether those opposing the text on the Commission were white or black. The spokesman was uncertain. We did not like Council member Waring’s question but if he were to ask it, he should have also asked the racial make-up of the Commission as a whole.