Grappling with the Legacy of 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman was one of South Carolina's most controversial politicians, a Democrat from the post-Reconstruction era who promoted a violent form of white supremacy. So it may surprise no one that a plan to remove a statue honoring Tillman from the Statehouse grounds has ignited a controversy.
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Grappling with the Legacy of 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman

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Grappling with the Legacy of 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman

Grappling with the Legacy of 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Eyes are on South Carolina for today's Democratic primary. We'll give you updates as we have them.

This story now about the legacy of one of the states own politicians: "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a Democrat from the post-Reconstruction era.

State Representative TODD RUTHERFORD (Democrat, Columbia): In South Carolina, as in most of the south, we are deeply rooted in history and, especially history as it relates to civil rights and the lack thereof.

SEABROOK: That's Representative Todd Rutherford. He's introduced a resolution in the state legislature to remove a statue of Ben Tillman from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, where it stood for more than 60 years.

Tilllman was a populist. He earned his nickname by railing against President Grover Cleveland, telling voters, send me to Washington, and I'll stick my pitchfork into its old ribs. He was also a fiery white supremacist. So, perhaps, it's no surprise that people like Representative Rutherford wants his statue taken down.

State Rep. RUTHERFORD: I can tell you that no different than our division over the confederate flag and moving the flag off to its own. I expect that same division to arise in trying to move the statue from the statehouse grounds. I've already gotten several phone calls where people telling me don't change history. Well, the position I take is that they change history by putting Ben Tillman's statue up there and putting a plaque on there that seems to indicate that he was an all-around good guy. And that's just not the case.

SEABROOK: Tillman often spoke in scorching language, advocating the rule of the white men in America through violence against blacks. In 1902, he cried on the Senate floor: We hope you will help us of the South to get rid of the threat of Negro domination, which hangs over us like the sword of Damocles. Lynchings will continue as long as those fins rape our wives and daughters.

Professor Lacy Ford of the University of South Carolina told me how Tillman rose to power.

Professor LACY FORD (History, University of South Carolina): He was quite a flamboyant speaker, and he was able to affect the sort of tune, the language and the position that a hard-pressed white farmers of the 1880s could identify with. And he gave them a series of, in their minds, plausible scapegoats for their economic problems, and those were essentially a sort of insensitive aristocracy, a nonresponsive state government and the burden of the state's black population as those scapegoats.

SEABROOK: He was kind of a rabble-rouser.

Prof. FORD: He was a rabble-rouser. But this was an era in which politics, essentially, consisted in two things: organization at the grassroots level and stamp speaking. In his political speeches, which were earthy, salty, profane, were very different from the sort of flowery, almost classical speeches that the elite politicians typically gave. And he really caught on with the directness and earthy style of his speech and with the power of the indictment. He leveled against the people he blamed for the problems of what he would call the common white farmer.

SEABROOK: Hmm. Now, after he was elected, he seems to have been pretty calculating and tactical in the ways in which he stripped black citizens of their rights. For example, he asked governor to change the Constitution of South Carolina. What did he do?

Prof. FORD: Well, you're right to say that he was extraordinarily calculating. What Tillman's political movement had done was divided the white population into two different camps: the people who supported Tillman and a group known as the conservatives who opposed him. And even though the conservatives had earlier disfranchised in 1882 approximately 80 percent of the state's African-American population, Tillman saw that even the 20 percent of the state's African-American population who were still able to vote could become an important factor in this factional contest between Tillmanites(ph) and conservatives.

So he was determined to disfranchise the remaining fraction of the black population, and he did so by supporting a call for constitutional convention, which was ultimately held in 1895 in which did, in fact, complete the disfranchisement of state's black population.

SEABROOK: Now, this statue of Ben Tillman on the statehouse grounds was erected in 1940. The plaque on the statue reads in part, quote, "In the home, loving and loyal. To the state, steadfast, true. For the nation, the country belongs to us all and we all belong to it."

Do you, as a historian, Professor Ford, have any opinion on what should be done with this statue, if anything?

Prof. FORD: Well, I think at a minimum, that plaque doesn't capture the real Ben Tillman at all and needs to be changed. He did lead to - his gubernatorial administration did create the Clemson College, now Clemson University and Winthrop, two institutions of higher education. That was for his principle achievements as governor. Because of that, his role at state government is going to be remembered that it really should be remembered for the disfranchisement clause in the Constitution of 1895 as well. And for the really vitriolic version of racism that he used to succeed in politics, that information about Ben Tillman should be well publicized, too.

SEABROOK: Lacy Ford is a historian at the University of South Carolina. Thanks very much, professor.

Prof. FORD: Thank you for having me.

SEABROOK: Well, the weather was sunny for today's Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina. Illinois Senator Barack Obama campaigned up to the last minute in Columbia. Senator Hillary Clinton was also in the state today, though she's been campaigning elsewhere this week.

NPR and will have results after polls close at Eastern time.

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