The monument erected in Marion Square in downtown Charleston to honor South Carolina statesman and former United States Vice President John C. Calhoun is getting a new plaque. Intended to put the career of Calhoun into proper perspective, a recently appointed city commission just completed the arduous task of distilling the career of a complicated and polarizing figure into a few sentences. Given that monumental challenge (pun intended), the commission did a fairly decent job.
That being said, the revelation that some of the more critical language describing Calhoun's views on slavery were omitted from the final language on the plaque underscores the problems inherent in any retelling of history. Some people's viewpoints will take priority over others, and the end result may not be one that takes the opinions of marginalized or discriminated groups into account. With any presentation of history, a fair question to ask is "whose story is it that will be told?"
The original opening sentence of the plaque read: "This statue to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) is a relic of the crime against humanity, the folly of some political leaders, and the plague of racism." Some commissioners thought that this language was too inflammatory, and chose to delete the terms "crime against humanity" and "plague against racism" in favor of language that was more neutral. But as commission member and College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers correctly pointed out, "If we are unwilling to say that slavery was a crime against humanity, then what can we really label as a crime against humanity?"
This sanitization of Calhoun's most odious views in the final draft of the plaque's language clearly places the value judgments of some over the value judgments of others. Rather than focusing on how inflammatory the continued veneration of a white supremacist and proponent of slavery may be to some, the charge was given not to make the language on the plaque too critical of Calhoun, lest it offend those clearly in support of the monument's presence. Had the commission been stocked with more members of Powers' mindset, as opposed to that of City Councilman Bill Moody who voted in favor of removing the disputed phrases, the original language of the opening statement may well have remained the same. This is not to say that one viewpoint was correct or that another is not, but that the choice to promote a telling history through monuments that commemorate proponents of slavery and white supremacy, is, by definition, tilted towards an exclusionary and discriminative perspective.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, the vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected in the South either at the turn of the century when white Southerners were enacting Jim Crow laws and flexing political muscle to the detriment of African Americans, or in the 1950s and '60s in direct response to the Civil Rights Movement. This timing was not accidental. The choice to revere founders of the Ku Klux Klan (Nathan Bedford Forrest), virulent racists (Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman), and white separatists (John C. Calhoun), were deliberate political statements in support of white supremacy, not simply incidental choices to honor "noble men" who just happened to reflect the views of their times.
Viewed through this prism, the choice to maintain these monuments, albeit with contextual language carefully tailored "not to inflame people," is a flawed decision from the start. As John Oliver of HBO's political weekly show pointed out during a recent segment on the Confederacy, monuments do not tell history, books and museums do. Monuments venerate those in society whom a community has chosen to lionize and honor. Placing watered down or sanitized statements on an otherwise commemorative statue, does nothing more than reflect the value judgments of those chosen to draft those statements. The statues remain as monuments to honor the individuals selected to be honored, in furtherance of not only their often repugnant views, but also the explicit messages those choosing to erect the statues intended to convey. White supremacy still reigns in the South, and until we are able or willing to dismantle the monuments specifically erected to promote that legacy, we are condoning that very specific message to current and future generations.