Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy At Clemson -Joseph Lord

Stephen Kantrowitz – University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor & Author of “Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy”

Wednesday night, October 11th, Clemson hosted Professor Stephen Kantrowitz from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Tillman Hall. Quite appropriately, he was giving a lecture on Benjamin Ryan Tillman, the former populist Governor and Senator of South Carolina, titled “Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy”.

The lecture itself was excellent. Kantrowitz outlined the life of Tillman, from his coming of age at the end of the Civil War era to his ascension to power in the late 19th century. In his early life, Tillman was discouraged by his perception of whites losing power in South Carolina as a result of the Constitution of 1865, a Reconstruction era constitution which gave the black majority in the state considerable financial and political power. During the 1870s, Tillman joined a white vigilante group known as the Red Shirts, infamous for the massacres of black Carolinians and the advocacy of violence against political opponents. Uncanny parallels to modern political groups can be found in this particular point. In the 1890s, riding on waves of lower class agrarian discontent, Tillman was able to propel himself to the governorship. Once in the governorship, Tillman’s main goal, by Kantrowitz’ argument, was the propagation and re-expansion of white power. This was certainly the case; Tillman’s use of government authority and power to strengthen his own moral prerogatives certainly was present and appalling.

It was during the Q&A that things got really interesting.

In this July 2015 photo, a statue honoring “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman is seen on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. | AP Photo

A man at one point stood up, said that he had not been at a Clemson lecture for 46 years, and then proceeded to ask, “I want to know, is there a movement on campus to change the name of this building and if not why not?” At that the loudest round of applause yet went up. It should be clarified again that Tillman was indeed a horrible racist. Yet, Tillman Hall was not named for Ben Tillman’s racist legacy; it was named for the man without whom none of us would be receiving our great education here on Fort Hill. By the same token, Byrnes Hall was not named after James F. Byrnes because of his support of “keeping the Negro in the South in check” and his subsequent blocking of anti-lynching legislation. Rather, it is named so because of the perception that Byrnes brought great benefits to South Carolina through FDR’s New Deal programs. Simply put, the truth of this campus is that a great many buildings were named after powerful racist men who certainly used political advantage to disadvantage the black population at some point in their life. However, one sin, even one so egregious as racism, cannot fairly be attributed as being the only aspect of a man’s legacy worth consideration or basis for the intentions of the enshrinement of that legacy. Tillman Hall is named such for Ben R. Tillman’s bringing Clemson University to Fort Hill– nothing else.

Detachment from reality for this Q&A session did not end there. A young woman in the crowd stood up and asked Kantrowitz a question about the comparison of Tillman to “contemporary politics”. Kantrowitz then made ridiculous and clearly pointed statements about comparisons between Tillman and politicians who we can easily assume to mean Donald Trump. It may be worth challenging Professor Kantrowitz to find a single piece of pointedly anti-black legislation to reach the President’s desk. It may also be worth questioning, if Donald Trump truly is comparable to Tillman, why he managed to get a higher proportion of the black vote over Clinton than Romney got over Obama. Clearly this statement was simply lunacy meant to play to the fears and prejudices of the overtly left-leaning audience at the event.

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