Offensive monuments: should they stay or should they go?

Becci Robbins
Communications Director, SC Progressive Network

Since white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville and shocked an addled nation, there is growing demand to take down offensive monuments in public spaces. Pressure is building in South Carolina as well, so we thought it time to revisit the SC Progressive Network‘s position, drafted after the Confederate flag was moved off the State House grounds and amid subsequent calls to remove the Ben Tillman statue.

Our position remains that instead of removing offensive monuments we reinterpret them to accurately reflect the state’s painful history. As we said in 2015, “taking them down will not change the past, nor will it help future generations understand and change the institutionalized racism they inherit. We support telling the truth about our former ‘heroes’ with additional plaques that explain their role in using race and class oppression to retain wealth and power.”

This is a teachable moment, a chance for a deeper look at these edifices we usually pass by without notice. Instead of erasing history, we should expand our understanding of it. When and why were the monuments erected? Whose interests did they serve and at what price? And who, really, are these figures occupying places of honor on the State House lawn? Chances are most South Carolinians don’t know.

We understand that our position is not shared among all of our members or allies, and we respect those who disagree. There isn’t a single valid way to respond to the assault on our shared values of equality and fairness. But whatever your beliefs, please don’t let your outrage misdirect your energy. There is critical work to be done in South Carolina to address the sources rather than the symptoms of our problems.

Our State House is littered with statues honoring the architects of systemic racism, codified in our very constitution. But we cannot wave a magic wand to make the monuments disappear. In fact, only our lawmakers can take them down, and then by an unlikely two-thirds vote, thanks to the Heritage Act they passed to ensure their enduring control.

The question activists must ask ourselves is not whether offensive monuments should come down, but how much time and energy are we willing to spend to that end.

Network bumper sticker, circa 1996

At its founding conference in 1995, the Network identified racism as the state’s most crippling and pressing problem. We joined other South Carolinians of good will and spent the better part of two decades fighting to get the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.

But all the years of heated debate and public protest did not move a Republican-controlled legislature unwilling to risk alienating its conservative base. The rallies, marches, editorials, town halls, national boycott – all fell on deaf ears.

It took the murder of nine people in a Charleston church for lawmakers to finally take the flag down. Even when the dead included one of their own, Sen. Clemeta Pinckney, debate on the floor was vicious and divided. Ultimately, it was political expediency during a campaign season that made them finally furl the flag. Photos of the killer posing with a Confederate flag forced the GOP to address an issue they could no longer ignore or defend. Make no mistake; it was pressure from the national party, not a moral epiphany, that moved Gov. Nikki Haley to act.

She is the perfect example of the liability in removing symbols of white supremacy while leaving its systems and structure untouched. Lawmakers can proudly claim the moral high ground (finally) while continuing to implement policies that disenfranchise and marginalize the least of us.

Watching the flag finally furled was a triumph, to be sure. But it came at a price. And what did it solve?

Since the flag came down, material conditions for the state’s most vulnerable citizens remain unchanged. Access to health care is uneven and inadequate. Public schools still struggle to offer our children minimally adequate education. The State House is embroiled in yet another corruption scandal. We are suffering the fallout from an irresponsible nuclear boondoggle that reflects a business-friendly political culture run amok. The state’s roads and dams are crumbling because lawmakers have starved infrastructure in the name of low taxes. The list is way too long.

So, yes, be outraged about the monuments, but choose your battles wisely. Statues never killed anyone; but public policy does so every single day.

Furthermore, symbols say a lot about who we are. As Modjeska Monteith Simkins said about the Confederate flag: Leave the damn rag up there. I’d rather see the Klan in sheets than in suits. As long as that flag flies from on top of that building you know what’s in the hearts of the people inside.”

• • •

The Network applauds those working to correct the historical narrative in South Carolina. To date, we know of plans for a poetry reading in front of the monument to Marion Sims, a visitation of the Tillman and Strom Thurmond statues by the New Legacy Project, and graduates of the Modjeska School are producing a tour of monuments on the State House grounds that is a departure from the one handed out in the gift shop.

Modjeska School graduate talks about lessons learned

Rep. Joe Neal congratulations Kyle Criminger at the 2015 graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights.

As the Modjeska School prepares for its Spring 2017 session, we thought it timely to share Kyle’s thoughts about the school and lessons learned there. The School is accepting applications through March 13. Classes run March 20-June 12 at the Seibels House in Columbia. Some scholarships available; call 803-808-3384 for details.

•  •  •

We got perspective at the Modjeska Simkins School: a big-picture analysis—a Modjeska Simkins analysis—of South Carolina’s history.

We learned that there is a direct line of malice from John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as “a positive good,” to Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman’s white supremacist state Constitution of 1895 (under which our state continues to operate to this day), to the coded racism of Harry Dent and Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy. Always the substance of South Carolina public policies has shown that black lives don’t matter here.

The imbalance of power in South Carolina is no accident. Because of unprecedented partisan gerrymandering, we have the least competitive legislative elections in the United States. Three out of four representatives faced no major party competition in the 2014 general election.

“Most of our legislators in South Carolina are winning with 99% of the vote,” said Brett Bursey, Executive Director of the SC Progressive Network. “The old Soviet elections we used to make fun of? Well, we now have that here.”

South Carolinians have the lowest combined state and federal tax burden in the country, yet our legislature tells that us we’re broke when we’re not. In fact, we leave more money on the table in special interest tax exemptions than we take in. We get immoral budgets and refused Medicaid Expansion for 250,000 of us because of petty partisan politics.

It’s maddening, but our problems aren’t new. “The names and faces have changed,” notes Progressive Network Communications Director Becci Robbins in Modjeska Monteith Simkins—A South Carolina Revolutionary, “but the political and social dynamics of exclusion, extremism and institutional racism remain stubbornly intact in South Carolina. We share Modjeska Simkins’ frustration and sense of urgency.”

Time and again, South Carolina history shows us how Modjeska Simkins and so many others have resisted. We are not alone, you see. Have you heard of the Yemassee War, or the Stono Rebellion? Denmark Vesey, or the Grimké sisters? What about Robert Smalls and our state’s Reconstruction legislature, which was the only majority black House of Representatives in the nation? The Lighthouse and Informer newspaper, Judge J. Waties Waring, or the Rev. J.A. Delaine?

Maybe you don’t know these names, events and institutions because the “winners” have written our textbooks. Generations of South Carolinians used Mary Simms Oliphant’s infamous history text into the 1980s. The book spoke of “happy slaves,” and was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. (In the 1920s, as a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, Modjeska Simkins refused to use the Oliphant textbook, deeming it racist.)

So we have on the one hand a state that has lived and died by the Golden Rule. Everybody knows the Golden Rule: regrettably, he who has the gold makes the rules. But beside that Rule, we also have stories of rebellion and revolutionary spirits, a South Carolina “people’s history” of organizing. And the task Modjeska Simkins and so many other South Carolinians like her have laid out before us: we must organize to form a community of shared values.

That is 24-7 work. It’s a process.

Organizing means preparing for opportunities. It entails building an organization that returns phone calls, pays staff, and fosters relationships in the community based on trust and confidence. And it is strategic, a disciplined use of collective energies on effective projects, not by simply being reactive. The best organizers leverage already-existing, well-thought-out organizing tools, and tap into the collective wisdom and experience of those who have come before, just like Modjeska Simkins did.

We must connect the dots to see that there is only one struggle, and it is for human rights. “If you have enough sense in your noggin,” Simkins once said, “you’re going to know a fight is there—and not just for black people, but for all mankind.”

The need for exploring our history has never been more critical. The Modjeska School provides an education like none other in South Carolina, one that benefits not just the students but the larger community, as well. As a graduate, I can attest to its value.

•  •  •

Kyle Criminger, a Spanish-language interpreter, serves as Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network. He was one of 35 inaugural graduates of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights. You can support the school by making a secure donation here, or by calling 803-808-3384 or sending an email to network@scpronet.com.

Know your SC herstory? Download booklet profiling legal pioneer Sarah Leverette

sarah_leverette_cvovershotThe SC Progressive Network‘s recently published profile of Sarah Leverette, which is being distributed free in select spots in Columbia – including our office at 2025 Marion St. – is now available for free download here.

The booklet is the final of a set of booklets about three extraordinary South Carolina women: Leverette, human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins, and LGBT advocate Harriet Hancock. The two-year project was made possible by a generous grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, which shares our belief that history is our greatest teacher.

For information about the booklets, call the Network at 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

 

Network profiles three extraordinary SC women

In 2014, the SC Progressive Network was awarded a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission to produce a booklet about Modjeska Monteith Simkins. It was distributed free to readers in the Midlands, and was so well received that the Network ordered a second printing.

Last year, the Network received another grant from the Commission for two additional booklets, on gay rights activist Harriet Hancock and legal pioneer Sarah Leverette. The Hancock booklet came out in May; the Leverette booklet will be released in mid-August.

Becci Robbins, the Network’s communications director and author of the booklets, said of the project, “While I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, the booklets evolved into a package that now seems perfectly timed. Besides telling the stories of three phenomenal South Carolina women, they offer a chance to explore racism, sexism, and homophobia—problems continuing to fester in the nation’s addled psyche.

The booklet about Modjeska, whose grandparents were enslaved, reminds us of South Carolina’s grim past – and how it haunts us still. The booklet about Harriet went to press just days before the massacre in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 maimed in a gay nightclub.

And the last booklet about Sarah, who was born on the eve of women’s suffrage in America, comes out as the nation deliberates whether to vote for its first woman president. This historic election has come with the sad reminder in certain news outlets and on social media that misogyny is alive and well.

While the booklets provide no easy answers to the vexing problems we face, they give some historical context to help understand the current social and political climate in America and here at home. And they show the power a single citizen can have, given enough passion and commitment.
 
My hope is that these booklets will make their way into the hands of girls and young women who will be as moved and impressed as I have been by Modjeska, Harriet, and Sarah. It has been a great privilege to share their stories.”

Questions? Call the Network at 803-808-3384.

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Download this booklet to read about Modjeska’s extraordinary life.

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Click here to download Harriet Hancock booklet.

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The Sarah Leverett booklet is at the printer, and will be available in mid-August.

University Libraries offers glowing review of Network’s booklet about Modjeska Simkins

By Herb Hartsook
University Libraries South Carolina Political Collections
(posted June 30 on A Capital Blog and re-posted with permission)

mms cover

Modjeska Simkins was a remarkable human rights activist and a uniquely powerful speaker. Becci Robbins captures her essence in a new booklet, Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary, just published by the South Carolina Progressive Network. The 38-page booklet is clearly a labor of love by Robbins, the Network’s Communications Director.

Mrs. Simkins’ voice is present throughout the booklet which features lavish quotations. Robbins places Mrs. Simkins both in time and place with a detailed biographical sketch. The booklet also includes rich illustrations and statements by people such as SC Political Collections donors Matthew Perry and Candy Waites who knew and were influenced by Mrs. Simkins.

Until a full-length biography is produced, this forms the best treatment on the life and important role played by this forceful human rights activist.

A June 26 reception at Mrs. Simkins’ Marion Street home, which houses the Network’s offices, celebrated the new publication. Brett Bursey, founder and director of the Progressive Network and devoted Simkins mentee, served as master of ceremonies and gave a stirring talk describing plans for the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, a new endeavor by the Network which will train and encourage individuals to follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Simkins and “take on issues of economic and social injustice.”

3,000 copies of the booklet, which was made possible by a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, will be distributed to libraries around the state and interested individuals.  An electronic copy is available on the Network’s website.

Mrs. Simkins once noted, “Start each sunrise as a new day.  Start out believing there’s good to be done and people to do it for.”  That spirit still lives.

Feds find SC’s photo ID law inadequate



As state works to satisfy DOJ’s questions, SC Progressive Network will continue to educate and mobilize SC voters

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network Communication Director

The US Dept. of Justice denied approval of South Carolina’s new voter ID law on Aug. 29, giving the state another 60 days to make its case. As required by the Civil Rights Act, DOJ has been reviewing the law to ensure that it does not abridge the rights of minority voters.

In its ruling, DOJ asked the state eight questions about procedures on obtaining photo voter registration cards, funding for voter education and poll worker training, and the process for casting provisional ballots when a voter has no photo ID.

The SC Progressive Network filed voter affidavits and comments with DOJ, highlighting the burdens posed on rural, poor and minority voters, and the likelihood of the law’s unequal enforcement.

DOJ raised many of the concerns the Network has about how the state will work around the burden posed by voters needing a birth certificate to get the required DMV ID card. The final version of the bill included a provision that a registered voter could obtain a photo voter registration card – pending funding – that would serve as acceptable ID without mandating a birth certificate. One camera for each county office has been funded for this purpose. The cards will be made in Columbia and mailed to voters.

In an Aug. 25 submission to DOJ, the state filed draft procedures for issuing photo voter registration cards. The plan entails issuing paper voter registration cards that a voter cannot vote with unless they have the DMV photo ID. If they don’t have the required photo ID, they must go to their county voter registration office and trade in their paper registration card for a “temporary voter registration card with a photo” that is good for 30 days. Permanent photo voter registration cards with photos will be printed by the state election office and mailed to voters.

Not only is the process burdensome to voters and election workers, it is inadequately funded. In June, $1.4 million was appropriated to cover everything from buying the cameras to mailing notices to the estimated 200,000 registered SC voters with no photo ID, to educating the public and poll workers on the new law.

As confusion and costs over the ID law mount, we should remember that no one has ever been caught impersonating another voter at the polls in SC, the sort of fraud this law was designed to prevent. Rather than protecting the sanctity of the vote, as proponents claim, the new requirement does nothing but make it harder to vote in South Carolina. For some voters, the burden will be too high.

While the state digs itself deeper into a hole of its own making, the Progressive Network will continue to educate voters and expand an organized coalition of citizens to fight this and other laws compromising voting rights in South Carolina.

New photo ID law makes it harder to vote in South Carolina than anywhere in the country

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network

You could forgive voters for being confused about South Carolina’s photo ID law. Debate on the bill went on so long their eyes glazed over years ago. It’s hard to be as charitable to Gov. Nikki Haley, who twists the truth every time she defends the law she helped push through.

The governor argues that if we need a photo ID to buy Sudafed or to board a plane, we should need one to vote. Sounds reasonable, but neither pharmacies nor airlines require a state-specific ID, as this law does. And to get a SC photo ID you need to produce a birth certificate. For some people, that’s a problem.

Finally, we are number one! Sadly, it’s in voter suppression.

These documents aren’t enough for Delores Freelon to vote.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has identified seven states as having the most restrictive photo ID requirements for voting: Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee and South Carolina. All require voters to show a photo ID, but states vary in what kind and how hard it is to get.

  • In Georgia, if voters are already registered, they automatically get a new photo ID voter registration card.
  • In Kansas, voters can use a driver’s license from out of state, any accredited college ID, or government-issued public assistance cards. Voters over 65 may show expired ID.
  • In Texas, you can get ID to vote with your concealed weapons permit, your boating license, insurance policy or beautician’s license. Or you can vote a provisional ballot if you will incur fees in order to vote. Voters over 70 are exempt.
  • In Indiana, those without a photo ID get their provisional vote counted by claiming the fees to get the required documents were a burden.
  • In Wisconsin, voters can use any state driver’s license, Social Security card or student ID.
  • In Tennessee, a driver’s license from any state allows you to vote.
  • In South Carolina, voters must produce a birth certificate to get the state-issued photo ID required to vote. No exceptions. (If you vote a provisional ballot, that won’t count unless you present your state-issued photo ID within three days.)

Numbers are hard to project, but it is clear that some of the nearly 200,000 registered South Carolina voters who don’t have their papers in order will not be able to vote in the next election.

Even though there are no cases of the kind of fraud this law is purported to prevent, our cash-strapped state will spend at least the $700,000 supporters say it will cost to implement. Opponents say it will cost two to three times that much to educate poll workers and the public about the new law. The governor has said you can’t put a price on the sanctity of the vote.

She should tell that to Delores Freelon, a Columbia resident and registered voter who won’t be able to vote in the next election because she has a Louisiana driver’s license and can’t get her birth certificate from California in time. What about the sanctity of her vote? What about Ms. Kennedy in Sumter, whose birth certificate lists her first name as Baby Girl, meaning she’ll have to go to court to get her papers straight in order to get a photo ID? Or Larrie Butler, who was born at home in Calhoun County in 1926 and is being told he needs records from an elementary school that no longer exists in order to establish a birth certificate?

Stories like these are coming in from around the state. The SC Progressive Network, which for 15 years has been advocating for voting rights, is fielding calls from people with questions about the new law or having problems meeting the ID requirements.

The lucky ones will still get to vote, but only after jumping through hoops and paying fees at various state agencies. Some will have to amend their birth certificates by going to court, at considerable cost. People without a car, a computer or short on money are simply out of luck. The disenfranchised will be primarily seniors and the poor. Many of them will be people of color who have voted all their lives.

The Network is working to educate the public about the new law.

This quiet whittling away of the vote is no accident. It is, in fact, the point. It’s the pattern being repeated in GOP-controlled legislatures across the country.

In South Carolina, we have a brief chance to challenge this law. Because of our state’s history of disenfranchising people of color, ours is one of seven states that must get pre-clearance from the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) before new voting laws can go into effect. Once the state attorney general files the case, DOJ has up to 60 days to consider whether the law suppresses the minority vote.

The SC Progressive Network is gathering statements to forward to DOJ documenting voters’ experiences. We need volunteers around the state to help find citizens who will have a hard time meeting the new voting requirements. If you want to help, call the Network at 803-808-3384 or see scpronet.com for details.

See video clips of Delores Freelon and Larrie Butler telling their stories.