COLUMBIA — Republican South Carolina legislative leaders are unlikely to give permission this year to local governments or colleges who want to take down Confederate statues or rename buildings honoring segregationists.
A state law passed in 2000 when lawmakers removed the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly to alter the names of buildings or streets honoring historical figures or remove statues from local government land.
Leaders in both the state House and state Senate said they have no plans to revisit the act this year or even any specific requests, like Clemson University wanting to remove the name of U.S. Sen. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who led violent racist mobs to stop Blacks from voting from the name of its administration building or Orangeburg wanting to remove a Confederate statue from Memorial Plaza.
Leaders said they want to see what happens to a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court of the legality of the Heritage Act before taking any action. That lawsuit was filed by the widow of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a pastor killed along with eight of his church members in a racist massacre at his Charleston church.
The Heritage Act mentions a wide range of events from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War. But in its more than 20 years on the books in South Carolina, it has almost exclusively protected Confederates and segregationists.
After the May police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, statues of racists and Confederates across the South and the nation were taken down both by governments and by angry protesters. No Confederate statues were removed in South Carolina.
At least nine bills altering or eliminating the Heritage Act have been filed before the 2021 General Assembly session starts Tuesday.
Not all would dial back the act. Some deal with a lack of criminal or other penalties in the 2000 law. One bill would fine local governments $25 million for removing monuments or renaming buildings without permission. Others add criminal penalties for local leaders or withhold state money for violating the act.
Rep. Kambrell Garvin said he is aware his bills to eliminate the Heritage Act or assert local governments can control their street names and statues likely won't get anywhere this session.
But by filing them, Garvin said he reminds people that these memorials of racists honor people who treated a quarter of South Carolina's population as subhuman or worse and keeps pressure on lawmakers. After all, it took 15 years after the Heritage Act to get the Confederate flag off the Statehouse lawn, the Columbia Democrat said.
“Whether it happens this session or five years, or 10 years, or 15 years from now — we are pushing the needle the right direction," Garvin said.
After the 2015 vote to remove the Confederate flag, House Speaker Jay Lucas said his chamber would not consider changing any monuments or other items honoring the Confederacy or other historical era as long as he was leader.
The Republican from Hartsville said through a spokeswoman earlier this month that he hasn't changed his mind on protecting monuments. Lucas has decided to make criminal justice reform bills like changing sentencing laws and debating whether the South Carolina needs a hate crime law a priority.
Senate President Harvey Peeler also shut the door on Heritage Act changes last June, posting on Twitter that he felt problems like fighting COVID-19, improving broadband internet access in rural areas and reforming the criminal justice system were more important and more beneficial.
“Changing the name of a stack of bricks and mortar is at the bottom of my to-do list,” Peeler said on Twitter.
Only one statue came down over the summer in South Carolina. Charleston removed a statue of U.S. Vice President and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun from a pedestal 100 feet over downtown. The mayor said the statue was on private land and didn't honor specific historical events mentioned in the law. The state didn't challenge the city.
One Democratic leader said that should remind locals they don't need to wait for the Legislature because of the current lack of penalties and in his opinion the likelihood the Supreme Court will rule the Heritage Act is illegal because it keeps local governments from ruling themselves.
“They don't need our permission,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia. “They just need guts.”
Orangeburg City Council unanimously passed a resolution last year to remove the 127-year-old statue located in Memorial Plaza. Council also unanimously passed a resolution to rename John C. Calhoun Drive.
The Orangeburg Revitalization Coalition has sued the city, saying it can remove the statue without the state’s permission. The group’s attorney, Skyler Hutto, has said the case is on hold and pending the outcome of a similar case.
Bamberg County Council approved a resolution last year asking lawmakers for permission to move and preserve the Confederate monument located in downtown Bamberg.