Dragonflies circled and banked in flight as protesters gathered in Marion Square to call for the end of South Carolina's Heritage Act and the relics it protects. The statue of John C. Calhoun overlooked the crowd of activists calling for the removal of the monument to the South Carolina native, seventh U.S. vice president, and defender of slavery. Several days had passed since an attack on counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. It had been just over 24 hours since the last gathering at the base of Calhoun's statue in Marion Square calling for its removal. August in Charleston, the heat had not broken. Members of the South Carolina Secessionist Party looked on.
"Today is about having a non-violent, peaceful demonstration opposing the South Carolina Heritage Act, which if we have that repealed it will actually lead to actually opening the doors to having a real dialogue in our local communities about removing these statues that glamorize and fictionalize Confederate soldiers and 'war heroes' and people who were a precursor to John C. Calhoun," says Megan Summers, an organizer with the Charleston Democratic Socialists of America.
South Carolina's Heritage Act protects any memorials located on public property from being altered or removed unless approval is passed by a two-thirds vote in both branches of the state General Assembly. The Heritage Act extends to monuments as well as streets, bridges, structure, parks, or other public areas dedicated to the memory of any historic figure or event.
A 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center tallied the total number of publicly sponsored Confederate monuments in the United States, with South Carolina ranking sixth in the nation. Virginia held the highest spot with 223 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces, while South Carolina was home to 112 such monuments and memorials. With symbols and reminders of the Confederacy never far away in Charleston, rally organizers hope that the growing reassessment of Old South memorials will carry over into the Holy City.
"I think what we need to be doing is having an honest discussion about our history and how the Civil War is actually all about slavery. Seeing these far-groups appropriating the message a lot of these statues represent is really worrisome, and we need to be doing everything we can communally to oppose that," says Summers. "These statues aren't accurate portrayals of history. They are glamorized, romanticized. They perpetuate this mythology of this lost cause of the Civil War and the beauty of the Antebellum South. I think if we are going to, as a community, face the reality of racial oppression, of white supremacy, terrorism, we do need to take these down. It's not about erasing history. It's about recasting our narrative so it's true and accurate."
Leading up to chants of "Take it down for Charlottesville," "Take it down for the Emanuel Nine," and "Fuck Calhoun," those joining in the rally shared their own reasons for attending.
Leslie Armstrong counts among her ancestors the judge who held court over Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who seized a Confederate ship and steered to freedom during the Civil War. Smalls went on to be elected as a state and federal representative. Asked to speak on why she attended Wednesday's rally, Armstrong highlighted her connection to Smalls' 1877 trial for an alleged bribery case.
"My great, great, great grandfather was the judge at his trial and did everything he could to make the trial go against Robert Smalls," says Armstrong, who said she hoped to atone for her grandfather's sins. "I have nine grandchildren. I want an America where everyone is free, where they know that racial justice is important."
With the megaphone open to any speakers willing to share their experience and what brought them to the evening's protest, Jonathan Kammer, who credited himself as a musician, teacher, and repairer of saxophones spoke up regarding the specter of white supremacy and anti-Semitism that hangs over the modern political discourse.
"I'm a guy with white identity. Fifty, 60, 70 years ago, my ancestors wouldn't have had white identity. I'm a Jewish American. Jewish Americans organized really hard for their white identity, so there's a problematic thing that Jewish Americans need to do to embrace black empowerment and try to suppress white supremacy," says Kammer.
As the rally drew to a close and thunder began to break over downtown Charleston, members of the rally began to disperse.
Left speaking as the crowd began to clear were chair of the S.C. Secessionist Party James Bessinger and Elder James Johnson of the National Action Network, who had stood below Calhoun's monument the day before and called for its removal. The two spoke candidly at the foot of the statue that would seem to divide them.
"It's the case of all of us trying to put our egos aside to acknowledge the fact that though we have completely different opinions on the debate, though we both want completely different outcomes out of the debate, when it's all said and done, whether all the monuments go, none of the monuments go, or some go and some stay, we're still going to have to share Charleston. Charleston is still our home," says Bessinger.
Among the S.C. Secessionists Party's next major demonstrations is the "flagging" of the College of Charleston campus, which the Secessionists' Facebook page says is "dedicated to the abundant contributions of CofC President Glenn McConnell to the preservation of Confederate Heritage over the years and to remind everyone that a Confederate still runs their liberal school, regardless of how much the state is paying for his silence."
Asked about the flagging, scheduled for Oct. 28, Bessinger says, "We're actually working to get some other organizations with us on that, other organizations that traditionally don't approve of us on things, but want to hear what McConnell says."
In terms of McConnell's previous touting of Confederate heritage before his time at the College of Charleston, Bessinger adds, "Shit or get off the pot. Tell everybody exactly where you're at. Don't ride the fence."