The Heritage Act: The Ugly Truths

July 18, 2020

The Heritage Act: What is it, and why does it matter?

With many Confederate statues being taken down in states across the country, cities in South Carolina remain bound by law not to remove them. The South Carolina Heritage Act of 2000 was part of a compromise that led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome. It forbids the removal of any other flags or memorials of any war, historic figure, or event from public property, unless approved by a two-thirds majority of the state legislature. Today, this means that monuments and other memorials honoring the Confederacy or Confederate generals cannot be removed from public grounds in our state, or even renamed in the case of parks and buildings, unless specifically approved.

Proponents of the Heritage Act have two main arguments in favor of it. The first is that, as the name indicates, Confederate memorials represent part of Southern heritage, rather than honoring slavery and white supremacy. 

To explain my stance on this issue, I’ll start with my own experiences. Growing up in Rock Hill, I often heard it said that the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern heritage and culture, of sweet tea and grits and the ever-useful word “y’all”, and as a child I accepted this. I was taught in school that the Civil War was not as much a fight over slavery as it was about states’ rights. I saw the Confederate monuments all over the South, but I never really gave much thought to the historical significance of these symbols or ascribed any meaning to them beyond this; I think many white Southerners have always felt the same way. It wasn’t until I learned more about the true history behind these monuments that I began to realize that they have a much deeper and uglier significance, one that is especially harmful to the descendants of enslaved people.

To those who maintain that the Civil War was not about slavery, please know that the history you have been taught has been whitewashed. I have experienced this firsthand; I was taught that same narrative in school, but I now know it to be false. The Confederate Constitution, adopted by the Confederate Congress in 1861, was very explicit in its intent to preserve the institution of slavery, referring to enslaved people as “property” and stipulating that slaves who escaped from the Confederate states should be returned to their owners. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, famously said in an 1861 speech, “[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

That notion of white supremacy is preserved by the statues and monuments that honor the Confederacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these memorials are spread across 31 states and the District of Columbia – far exceeding the 11 states that seceded at the outset of the Civil War. Most of these monuments did not go up immediately after the war’s end in 1865. During that time, commemorative markers of the Civil War tended to be memorials that mourned soldiers who had died. The vast majority of Confederate monuments were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which exactly corresponds with the era of Jim Crow segregation. In contrast to the earlier memorials, these monuments glorified leaders of the Confederacy and the values that they fought for, the crux of which was the right to own other human beings. 

In my own district, in downtown Fort Mill, Confederate Park houses the Faithful Slaves monument, which has been recognized by historians as one of the most racist of all American monuments. It was erected in 1895, 30 years after the end of the Civil War during the height of the enactment of Jim Crow laws. Inscribed on this monument is a dedication to “The faithful slaves, who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the [Confederate] army … during the struggle for the principals of the Confederate States of America”. This is a prime example of white supremacists using monuments to attempt to justify segregation and disenfranchisement decades after the end of the Civil War.

The second argument in favor of the monuments that I have seen recently is that these statues are part of the historical record, and that removing them would be tantamount to erasing history. In the 1980s, statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin came down throughout Eastern Europe with the end of the Cold War. In 2003, statues of Saddam Hussein were taken down in Iraq. Was history erased then? Should those monuments have been preserved? Certainly not. We understand what they symbolized, and we acknowledge that removing them was right. So why are some of us defending statues of people who wanted to preserve the institution of enslaving and murdering an entire race of people at all costs?

Statues are not history. Statues are symbols that honor and glorify historical figures and events. Retaining a larger-than-life statue of a Confederate general on a pillar is a tribute to the Confederacy’s legacy. When we take down a statue, we do not erase history. Rather, we reject what the statue represents in the present day. Do I think these monuments should be destroyed? No. They belong in museums, where they can be used as a reflection on one of the ugliest aspects of American history, rather than in a place of honor.

This is why I support the repeal of the Heritage Act, so that the people in towns across South Carolina can decide for themselves whether they want to continue to glorify the failed Confederacy and perpetuate the white supremacist intentions that helped erect these monuments. My opponent, Rep. Raye Felder, has not supported repealing the Heritage Act, even when asked directly. If elected, I will fight for the rights of people in my district and across the state to determine their own legacy in rejecting white supremacy.

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