A legislator who led the ultimately-unsuccessful effort to keep or replace the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds said he thinks a renewed call to remove Confederate monuments is part of a nationwide effort to “destroy all things Southern.”
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, made the comments on Greenwood radio station WCRS last week, after recent calls to remove Confederate war monuments in response to riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s where white nationalist protests of a Robert E. Lee statue’s removal turned violent. Two days later, protestors destroyed a Confederate soldiers monument in Durham, North Carolina that they claim glorified slavery.
Since then, other towns and some colleges outside of South Carolina have decided to remove or cover monuments considered pro-slavery or racist. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin called for several monuments to be taken off the Statehouse grounds which honor past politicians with white supremacist views. He particularly singled out a monument for J. Marion Sims — a gynecologist who experimented on female slaves. Meanwhile, the National Action Network has called for the removal of former Vice President and slavery defender John C. Calhoun’s statue from Marion Square in Charleston.
Pitts told WCRS host Anne Eller he believes the move is part of a larger effort to “whitewash and erase all Southern heritage.”
“If you are so sensitive that a piece of bronze or a piece of rock can cause you great amount of grief, then you’ve got bigger problems than a piece of granite, a piece of rock, a piece of marble or a piece of whatever,” he said in the extensive on-air interview.
The Laurens Republican said he believes some Confederate icons — particularly the well-known battle flag and naval jack — have been co-opted by racist groups such as the KKK. Pitts maintains he was willing to remove the battle flag from the Statehouse in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME Church shootings (the gunman Dylann Roof was a self-professed white supremacist who posed with the flag in several photos), but only if the banner was replaced by another flag from a South Carolina Civil War unit. Several of his proposed amendments were rejected during the debate which ultimately brought down the flag.
But he said the war monuments represent those killed, not ideas.
“It’s a reminder of the bloodiest war in the history of the nation. It was Americans against Americans,” he said. “You don’t gain anything by trying to erase it. You gain by sitting down, talking about the differences and finding common ground.”
Under a 2000 compromise which took the battle flag off the Statehouse dome, two-thirds of the legislature must vote to remove or alter any historical military, African-American or Native American monument or statue or to rename a street in South Carolina. While some legislators (mostly Democratic) have called for more local control, South Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders have refused to bring the measure to floor debate.
Pitts has been one of the law’s most ardent defenders, even going against Greenwood city leaders near his own district who want to alter a war monument which separates the names of fallen troops into “colored” and “white” categories.
“(History) is not a pretty picture, but it’s one that people deserve to know about, because it is how this country was created,” Pitts said. “Was Thomas Jefferson a slave owner? Yes. Was he a bad person? I don’t think so.”