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"To the Confederate Defenders of Charleston" in White Point Gardens depicts a warrior with the state seal on its shield
The 1925 court case Tennessee vs. Scopes, challenging a state law that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in schools, was a national sensation
; you probably learned about it in history class. It gave the country a glimpse at the intrigue of a small Southern railroad town. But national publicity of the case painted Dayton, Tenn., as a disconnected backwoods of fundamentalists and quirky, quaint vestiges of the past.
Charleston civil rights attorney Armand Derfner says the South Carolina law that protects every single street and statue named for a historical figure could make the Palmetto State look the same way.
"That law made the people of Tennessee look like yokels," Derfner told the City Paper
, referring to the statute banning the teaching of evolution.
Charleston attorney Armand Derfner speaks before the Supreme Court of the United States in 2013
The Heritage Act, passed in 2000, protects Confederate flags and various monuments and other sites on state and local lands from any change whatsoever without a two-thirds majority vote in both the state Senate and House of Representatives.
"This law makes South Carolina look like a place for yokels," Derfner added, "and that's really unfair to our people."
This week, the Charleston chapters of the NAACP and National Action Network called for the repeal of the Heritage Act, singling out downtown monuments they say represent a white supremacist ideology that has led to modern-day hate crimes like the Emanuel AME murders. But as targets appear on the backs of monuments to racist white men across the country, it seems increasingly unlikely that individual statues in South Carolina will come down without a change or repeal of the Heritage Act.
S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard joins members of the National Action Network to call for the removal of the statue of John C. Calhoun located in Marion Square
Protests and politics aside, a constitutional challenge
over a segregated World War II monument in Greenwood, S.C., may be key for lawmakers to re-examine the controversial law.
Derfner, who represents four residents in the suit who want to replace a plaque that separates fallen soldiers as "white" and "colored," says the two-thirds majority required under the Heritage Act denies them democratic representation where decisions are made with a simple majority.
"That's how, in a democracy, you normally decide public questions. The law should be called the Anti-Democratic Heritage Act," Derfner says.
Local leaders in Greenwood also want to see the monument changed, but efforts in the Statehouse to have the changes made through the legislative process have failed.
"The only thing that's standing in the way of the city and what the people want is this disgraceful state law," he says.
Derfner says the Heritage Act creates an "artificial barrier" that stops people from discussing changes under the law, discouraging participation in the democratic process.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D-Charleston) says that if the court rules the Heritage Act unconstitutional in the Greenwood case, "that may give some legislators who are wanting to discuss the issue, but need political cover, that may give them some incentive to take it up in the General Assembly."
"I'm not sure we get there gauging the appetite of the majority of members in the House and Senate," he added.
Kimpson says he favors repealing the law, putting the decision of what to do with local monuments in the hands of local leaders.
"Even if a mayor of Greenwood or mayor of Myrtle Beach wanted to make some adjustments (whether to amend or remove), the Heritage Act, which some argue is unconstitutional, prevents them from doing so," Kimpson says.
"The issue is squarely before the court, and we need a ruling," he adds.
Derfner says he has no indication of how soon a decision will be reached in the Greenwood case, which had its most recent proceedings
in circuit court in March.
"I hope this doesn't go longer. Everyone knows now that this is a tinder box," he says.