Obama’s election set off a predictable round of inconclusive wondering about whether, or when, we’d become a “post-racial America.” Well, I have a benchmark to propose. Maybe it’s more like a precondition, but to me it’s a large and obvious one.
The United States of America will not overcome its obsession with race until Benjamin Tillman’s statue at the South Carolina State Capitol is pulled down, like a statue of Lenin in Berlin or Prague. In case you don’t know the former governor and United States senator, known fondly as “Pitchfork Ben,” here is a choice passage from his long career of violence, fraud, and windy speech-making on behalf of white supremacy:
In my State there were 135,000 negro voters, or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. … Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it? … We were sorry we had the necessity forced upon us, but we could not help it, and as white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection with it. We took the government away from them in 1876. We did take it. … Then [in 1895] we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.
Thus Senator Ben Tillman to his U.S. Senate colleagues, in what he apparently considered to be a moderate statement of reasonable views. His statue stands on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol. One of these days it will come down.
I don’t mean that a narrow majority in the state legislature will manage to order the statue dismantled while crowds of white folks fume about the insult to our heritage. What I hope is that throngs of people come together to pull down that statue, and they’ll celebrate together while they’re doing it. They won’t do it out of guilt, or to make a statement. They’ll do it because they’re so glad to be out from under the thumb of the dead god of Race, and because “Pitchfork Ben,” and the bloviating fears and hatreds he embodied, have finally lost all their power.
Until that day comes, and I hope it’s soon, but until that day I’d just as soon have the lawmakers leave that statue alone. Once the statue is down, they can decide what to do with the bronze. (They might try selling it to someone in Fremont in Seattle. Folks there could probably think of some way to have fun with Pitchfork Ben.)
- Ben Tillman, “Their Own Hotheadedness”: Tillman’s remarks in the U.S. Senate, 23 March 1900.
- Bob Herbert, in “The blight that is still with us” (New York Times, 22 January 2008), deplored the statue and linked it to various social ills.