As it wrestles with preserving a symbol, South Carolina is finding that as icons are relegated to the dustbin of history, someone usually must decide how to manage the dustbin — and pay for it.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — After decades of debate in South Carolina over the Confederate battle flag, it seemed the matter had been settled in July, when state officials stopped flying the flag on State House grounds and relegated it to a museum for “appropriate display.”
Then came the price tag.
This month, consultants for the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia introduced a $5.3 million plan to expand the facility and show off the flag, along with an electronic display of the names of the state’s Civil War dead.
That idea proved to be a bust among Democrats who view the flag as an affront to African Americans, and among members of both parties who balked at the cost.
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“Irresponsible,” said Rep. Mary Tinkler, a Democrat of Charleston.
“Absurd,” said Rep. Christopher Corley, a Republican of Graniteville.
“It wouldn’t have cost anything to keep it where it was,” said Rep. William Chumley, one of 20 Republicans in the South Carolina House, including Corley, who voted against moving the flag in the first place.
Last week, the commission that oversees the museum reduced the cost to $3.6 million. But the plan is subject to approval by the Legislature, and Tommy Pope, the House speaker pro tempore, said he expected a vigorous debate as his fellow Republicans sought to balance spending concerns with what he called the heritage that the flag represents.
The debate illustrates a challenge that communities around the country are facing as Americans embark on a reconsideration of public symbols and memorials that many now find offensive. As these icons are relegated to the dustbin of history, someone usually needs to figure out how to manage the dustbin — and pay for it.
For centuries, conquering armies, revolutionaries and liberated peoples have done no such thing, preferring to pull down, melt or dismember memorials to toppled governments. But other models have emerged to recognize history and preserve such memorials while not extolling the ideas they embody.
In Budapest, Hungary, a tourist attraction called Memento Park has collected dozens of Soviet-era monuments to Communist titans such as Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “This park is about dictatorship,” the website quotes the park’s designer, architect Akos Eleod, as saying. “And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this park is about democracy.”
Throughout the American South, similar strategies are emerging, particularly since the slayings of nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June prompted a movement to take down the symbols of the Confederacy. An avowed white supremacist is to stand trial in the shootings.
At the University of Texas, Austin, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was removed from a prominent place near the landmark tower building in August. After refurbishing, the statue will be displayed in a new exhibit space dedicated to “the role of symbolism, statuary and public memory in American history,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
South Carolina’s Confederate and military museum dates to 1896; since 2001, it has been housed in a reconfigured textile mill a few blocks from the State House. The exhibits celebrate the state’s martial history and make some effort to contextualize the collection of old weapons, photographs and curiosities, though often with a distinctive Southern twist: One display refers to the Civil War as the “War between the States,” a name preferred by Confederate heritage groups.
The museum is also full of Confederate battle flags that were used by South Carolinians during the war — unlike the flag that was removed from the State House. That makes the whole issue of honoring the State House flag in the museum particularly absurd to critics like Brad Warthen, a former editorial-page editor at The State in Columbia, who now blogs about South Carolina politics.
Warthen has noted that legislators, years ago, mandated that the flag be made of nylon, rather than cotton, to keep the colors from fading. He ridiculed this as ahistorical and “cheesy.” (One of his old columns began with altered lyrics to the song “Dixie”: “Oh, I wish I was in the land of nylon.”)
Like many, Warthen believes that spending millions to display the flag makes little sense in a state that is struggling to find funds for road and infrastructure repairs (much needed after catastrophic flooding in October), educational initiatives and changes to a scandal-plagued Department of Social Services.
“Our state’s spending needs are legion,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter how you feel about the flag. It’s a ridiculous waste of resources.”
The flag is also likely to be a source of bad blood when the Legislature convenes in January. Tinkler, the Democratic lawmaker, has introduced a bill that would allow the museum display to be paid for with private funds and grants.
Corley, the Republican, has denounced the legislation that brought the flag down as a “backroom deal.” A Christmas card he sent to colleagues who supported the bill had a photo of the Confederate flag flying at the State House and a greeting that said, in part: “May you take this joyous time as an opportunity to ask forgiveness of all your sins, such as betrayal.”