It would be a mistake to remove the statue of Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman from the S.C. State House grounds, most obviously because it is wrong to judge the past by the standards of the present.
Tillman was unquestionably a white supremacist. But if we remove his statue, where do we stop?
If we start eliminating everything we don’t like from history, there won’t be much left.
Furthermore, it is wrong to think of Ben Tillman as nothing but a white supremacist.
Tillman had a long and colorful career, and to remember him only for white supremacy is like remembering Bill Clinton only for having been impeached.
There is another reason to think twice about uprooting Tillman: The demand has all the trappings of an exercise in racial power politics.
There is a well-established pattern of blacks evoking racism in order to attack their critics, get what they want or just keep whites on the defensive. One of the reasons for condemning Tillman for racism–93 years after his death–is to remind whites of the evils of the past. The thinking is that the more often whites are reminded, and the more guilty they can be made to feel, the more likely they are to agree to present-day demands. The message is: “Look what you did. You owe us.”
The same dynamic drives allegations of current racism.
There is divisiveness enough, without going looking for the imagined racism of Tea Partiers and Obama critics. Digging up Ben Tillman’s century-old racism will not help either.