The Sons of Dear Old Clemson
Race relations seem to be at the forefront of the current plan to drag America kicking and screaming back to the mid-19th century, so this sort of thing is fascinating to me. Clemson’s black students have long complained that the university underfunds their programs, fails to hear their grievances, doesn’t give them a voice on campus, and brushes off incidents of racial provocation; the whole thing culminated in this sorry display from one of the university’s upstanding (white) fraternities. Such is the climate that led to the recent push to change the name of Clemson’s main building, which, of course, the college administration declined to do, offering up the familiar explanation that sure, Ben Tillman might have been a questionable guy by today’s oh-so-sensitive standards, but he did a lot for the school, and he’s part of our history, and, hey, what are you gonna do?
Since people in power and the press that thinks its job is to toady people in power as much as possible don’t feel it is particularly important to tell the truth, a bit of a history lesson might be in order here. The post-Civil War state of South Carolina found itself, much to the dismay of well-off landowners and the white supremacist elite, in a nightmare of its own making: thanks to their own massive enslavement of blacks, the voting majority, once those slaves became freedmen, consisted of former slaves who were highly unlikely to vote in the interests of their former masters. Realizing that representative democracy (that is to say, the most sacred principle on which America was founded) was about to bite them in the ass, they decided the best thing to do would be to stop democracy dead in its tracks, in a very literal sense. At first, the legislature tried to ban blacks from voting altogether, and instituted flagrantly unconstitutional laws to deprive them of political influence. When that didn’t work, under the guise of ‘rifle clubs’, the white elite formed racist militias — by every definition of the term, murderous terrorist organizations — and intimidated, assaulted, and killed any blacks foolish enough to believe the North’s victory in the war would mean any improvement in their station.
Into this swamp of violent oppression rode Benjamin Ryan Tillman, one of the most repulsive, base, grotesque human beings to ever hold elected office in the United States. Tillman was a notorious white supremacist; he railed against the idea of having to pay his former slaves a wage, and forced them into onerous work contracts that kept them poor and without options — slavery by another name. He hated blacks and openly railed against them as subhuman animals at every opportunity, and subjected his workers to the lash even though it was no longer legal to do so. Most critically, he joined with the Sweetwater Sabre Club and the Redshirts, two of the most notorious terror gangs of the time, and took part in the massacre of black voters, militiamen, and even elected officials. He oversaw the brutal murder of dozens of blacks in South Carolina, and personally killed at least half a dozen himself. All of this came after the Civil War, when the law of the land recognized his victims as true American citizens with all the rights of an American; but democratically elected officials, upstanding soldiers who served their country, and innocent civilians attempting to exercise their Constitutional right to vote, Tillman murdered them all.
This is not history that is in dispute. It is a matter of plain and well-documented fact. Tillman himself bragged, not only of his contempt for blacks, but of his outright murder of them, until the day he died, including the entire duration of his terms as the governor of South Carolina and a United States senator. Lest anyone assume it excessively hyperbolic to refer to him as a terrorist should know that the description came from Tillman’s own mouth; he constantly boasted of his violence against blacks, making no secret of his contempt for decency, civility, and democracy. “We tried to overcome the (black) thirty-thousand majority by honest methods,” he lied, but discovering it to be a “mathematical impossibility”, he decided to “recover our liberty by fraud and violence”. Years later, in his autobiography, he frankly stated that “the purpose of our visit to Hamburg (where seven black militiamen were murdered) was to strike terror”. Two months later, he led his men into Ellenton, where as many as a hundred blacks were slaughtered, including a state senator.
So, when African-American students today complain about having to daily walk past a building named for this monster, they’re not talking about merely a figure in history who was susceptible to the ordinary bigotry of his time and place, or someone lucklessly entangled in the dismal economics of a slave state, or even a more outspoken than normal Southern white supremacist. They are talking about a man who was considered a violent thug even by the standards of the day; a self-admitted terrorist who led groups of armed rebels in a deadly campaign to overthrow the legitimate government, suppress the fair functioning of democracy, and grind their fellow countrymen into the dirt; a man who not only owned their ancestors, but once he was no longer allowed to do so, commenced to murdering them in numbers that exceed the bodycount of any mass murderer.
This is the armed terrorist of whom Clemson’s (white) Vice-President of Student affairs referred to as part of “the history of Clemson, and you can’t change the history”. This is the multiple murderer that the local news refers to as “a person with a background of prejudice”. This is the anti-democratic racial supremacist Kevin Hart is referring to when he says “it’s a tradition at Clemson University”, and tells us that “what we should really be focusing on” is “all he did for Clemson”. But this view of history requires a moral relativism leagues beyond that of the most leftist postmodernist: it is a fantastical whitewashing that claims no crime is too heinous, no massacre is too horrific that it can’t be balanced out if the perpetrator did something nice for white people. Neo-Confederates and Civil War revisionists will point to the corruption and greed of the postbellum South, but Reconstruction never wreaked anything near the havoc on innocent people that Ben Tillman did all by himself, let alone the combined horrors of hundreds of years of chattel slavery.
No one is asking that Benjamin Tillman be erased from historical memory. What the black students of Clemson are asking is that he be recognized for the monster that he was, and that, instead of being held up as a benefactor to education, he be presented in the historical record as what he was: a terrorist, a bigot, and a killer. Charles Manson is certainly in no danger of being scrubbed from our collective memory; we simply aren’t going to focus on the fact that he was charismatic and could write a catchy tune and name a city park after him. Adolf Hitler will never be forgotten by history, but we have sensibly chosen to remember that the terrible things he did far outweigh the fact that he kick-started the German economy, and have wisely decided not to go around naming schools after him. Asking that a murderer be called a murderer, and not glorified by forcing the descendants of his victims to walk, heads bowed, around a multi-million-dollar structure erected in his name, is not a elimination or a distortion of history; it is an admission and a recognition of history in a country that is increasingly forgetting how to do so.