South Carolina’s Democratic Party chairman on Wednesday defended a unanimous decision by his party’s executive committee to remove the names of former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from the party’s annual fundraising dinner.
Chairman Jaime Harrison argued the two prominent figures from the Democratic Party’s earliest days are not the best representatives for the modern party. In an interview with South Carolina Radio Network, he said there has been conversation among the party faithful for several years about changing the name of the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
South Carolina is not the only state to host the dinner, but Democratic Party leaders in several other states have already altered the name of their biggest fundraising event each year. The September 30 event in Columbia will be the final dinner to have the name, Harrison said.
In South Carolina, where African-Americans make up a majority of Democratic primary voters, there had been pushback because both Southern men owned slaves. Jackson also presided over the government at the time of the Indian Removal Act, which allowed the forced relocation of Cherokee and other tribes from the Southeast into present-day Oklahoma. Thousands died on the trek.
“It seems like the underlying sentiment (on the committee) is we understand the history and appreciate our history,” Harrison said. “We know it’s been evolving and you evolve as a party. So maybe now it’s time to select a name that’s better reflective of where the Democratic Party is today.”
However, the Democratic Party’s last man to serve as governor said he did not agree with the vote at all. Former governor Jim Hodges, who led the state from 1999-2003, said in a Facebook post that ignoring the contributions Jefferson and Jackson made to the country would be “short-sighted.”
“It seems like the appropriate way to deal with any historical figure is to offer the full story — good and bad,” Hodges wrote. “I don’t imagine anyone- Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson- could survive full scrutiny of their beliefs and actions in the context of current times… just like those of us living now won’t be able to fully survive that scrutiny 50 or 100 years from now.”
Jefferson was not actually a Democrat, although he was the first president elected from its predecessor Democratic-Republican Party. Jackson, who is the only president to be born in South Carolina, was considered to be the first man elected from the “modern” Democratic Party after he won the White House in 1828.
Harrison emphasized that he did not want to cast judgment on important historical figures using modern standards, but said the dinner’s name caused “pain” among minorities and Native American members, particularly because of Jackson.
“If we’re going to be a party of inclusiveness, if we’re going to be a party for all people, then we have to appreciate the backgrounds and experiences that people bring to the table,” Harrison said.
He said the state party plans to form a committee that will “reach out” to local chapters and grassroots activists on suggestions for new names. Harrison said some of the suggestions so far have been to name the event after more recent Democratic members, such as former presidents Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, or even potentially the late State Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney was among the nine people gunned down at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year.