Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Evolution Icon Evolution

Honored by Statue, Democratic South Carolina Senator Said Some Blacks “Near Akin to Monkey”

John G. West
Photo: Statue of Benjamin Tillman, Columbia, South Carolina, by Billy Hathorn / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

As I’ve written previously, I generally don’t favor removing old statues of historical figures. I’d prefer using the statues as an occasion for learning lessons about the past, including uncomfortable parts of the past.  

However, if a person is despicable enough, I would make an exception. For me, Benjamin Tillman is one of the exceptions. From 1895-1918, Tillman served as a Democratic United States Senator from South Carolina. South Carolina still honors Tillman with a statue in its state capital

Tillman was a monster. He publicly defended lynchings. He drew on evolutionary racism to preach black inferiority. And he worked to subvert representative democracy.

Intimidation, Killings, and Fraud

During a U.S. Senate debate on January 21, 1907, Tillman boasted about how he and others successfully disenfranchised blacks after the Civil War through intimidation, killings, and fraud. He revealed that depriving blacks of their newly accorded political rights was in fact his motivation for becoming involved in politics: “We reorganized the Democratic Party with one plank, and only one plank, namely, that ‘This is a white man’s country and white men must govern it.’ Under that banner we went to battle.”

He meant “battle” literally, recounting how he and others killed blacks in a series of armed conflicts: “A month later we had the Ellenton riot, in which no one ever knew how many negroes were killed, but there were forty or fifty or a hundred. It was a fight between barbarism and civilization, between the African and the Caucasian, for mastery. It was then that ‘we shot them’; it was then that ‘we killed them’; it was then that ‘we stuffed ballot boxes.’”

Tropes of Darwinian Evolution

Tillman justified his actions by drawing on the standard tropes of evolutionary racism. As he explained, “We had decided to take the government away from men so debased as were the negroes — I will not say baboons; I never have called them baboons; I believe they are men, but some of them are so near akin to the monkey that scientists are yet looking for the missing link.” (Emphasis added.) According to Tillman, it was the supposed biological inferiority of blacks that justified him in stealing elections: “We saw the evil of giving the ballot to creatures of this kind, and saying that one vote shall count regardless of the man… Then it was that we stuffed ballot boxes, because desperate diseases require desperate remedies.”

Frankly, I am appalled that South Carolina would continue to honor such a man. I definitely don’t favor illegally removing his statue (let alone blowing it up), but I do favor legally removing it.

Here’s an idea: Replace Tillman’s statue with a statue honoring the nine black Republican congressmen from South Carolina during the 1870s-1890s. Then move Tillman’s statue to a museum, and surround it with an exhibit exposing his racist record, including his promotion of scientific racism.