During the summer of 1876, paramilitary units of former Confederate soldiers and their sons waged a campaign of terror against the South Carolina state militia, which was by then composed almost entirely of African Americans. It was during those bloody days that an ex-slaveholder’s son named Ben Tillman rose to prominence. Under the leadership of prominent former Confederates, he took part in the siege and murder of militia men and local officials in the town of Hamburg. Late in the summer he led fifty men to the site of another massacre in Ellenton. They arrived too late to take part in the slaughter, but two men under Tillman’s command executed an African American state senator who had arrived to investigate the violence. Tillman was frank about the purpose of this terrorism: it aimed to “teach the negroes a lesson…[by] having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” He made that proud declaration 33 years later, during the third of his four terms in the United States Senate.
As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War concludes with the long-overdue furling of the Confederate flag, it may seem that Americans are finally reckoning with a painful past. The flag’s belated fall, together with President Obama’s statement in Charleston that the Confederate cause was slavery – the first time a sitting president has forthrightly stated that fact in more than a century – could mean a new willingness to face hard truths about our history.
It could mean that. But Ben Tillman reminds us that the defeat of the Confederacy was not the end of our reckoning with slavery. We are also living in the shadow of Reconstruction and its overthrow, a war that Tillman and his comrades won. A large statue of Tillman stands on the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia, and prominent buildings on several campuses bear his name, tributes to his power and popularity. To take full account of Ben Tillman is to understand a far more difficult truth: for a hundred years after the Confederate flag fell in 1865, the white supremacy for which Tillman proudly stood was part of the governing ideology of the United States. The slaveholders lost the Civil War, but they and their sons won the battle that followed. Ben Tillman’s career charts the nature and scope of that victory, and his legacies continue to shape our world.
Tillman’s career reminds us that the world of the post-Civil War South was shaped, to a staggering degree, by murder. His service as a “Red Shirt” foot soldier in 1876 included election-day violence aimed at preventing South Carolina’s black majority from voting. A black political organizer approached the polls in November to find Tillman waving a pistol: “If I come any further,” he reported Tillman telling him, “I would come through blood.” Such terror cast the election of 1876 into doubt, installed a Republican president who no longer counted on southern votes, and returned the former slaveholding class to power in South Carolina. Slavery was not reestablished, but through violence and intimidation slavery’s champions and their heirs replaced it with a racial caste system.
Tillman also reminds us that white supremacy constricted the imaginations of both reactionaries and reformers. He navigated the world of white politics with élan, and in 1890 he was elected governor as a reformer and the friend of “the farmers.” But Tillman bent over backwards to make sure his policies benefited as few African Americans as possible. He even threatened to turn down federal money for his “farmers college” – now Clemson University – unless the state college for black students received proportionally less money. For the next half-century, through the New Deal, economic and educational reformers understood that they could only succeed if they agreed not to challenge the racial caste system.
Tillman also never forgot the chief imperative of politics in a black-majority state: in 1895 he spearheaded a state constitutional convention that disenfranchised nearly all black citizens. “How did we recover our liberty?” he asked the convention. Everyone already knew the answer, but Tillman told them anyway: “By fraud and violence.” Now it was time to write that victory into law, nullifying the Fifteenth Amendment. It was many decades before the Supreme Court even began to question that result.
As a U.S. Senator and nationally famous public speaker, Tillman became best known for his defense of lynching as a necessary deterrent and appropriate punishment, especially for the rape of white women by black men. In such cases, he said, he himself would lead the mob. But the broader problem was the very idea of equality. Reconstruction had encouraged black men to imagine that they were equal, he told his colleagues on the senate floor. As a result, “[t]he poor African became a fiend, a wild beast, seeking whom he may devour, filling our penitentiaries and our jails, lurking around to see if some helpless white woman can be murdered or brutalized.” Those days could never be allowed to come again: “We realize what it means to allow ever so little a trickle of racial equality to break through the dam.” The only solution was a world of white power and black subordination. This meant the nullification of the rule of law itself where African Americans were concerned.
Tillman was dead by the time the modern Civil Rights Movement finally began to overturn the Jim Crow order, but politicians and terrorists mobilized both his rhetoric and his violence against it. As in the late nineteenth century, black activists and voters took their lives in their hands, and often paid with them. Even the celebrated victories of Brown v. Board in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t settle matters permanently.
Racial violence and political respectability are still not as far apart as we might wish to think. Dylann Roof waved the Confederate flag, but he didn’t need to go back 150 years to find the argument that African Americans are bent on political and sexual domination. He found Ben Tillman’s spiritual heirs through a website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group whose origins lie in the organized white resistance to the Civil Rights movement, and which did not fall into political disrepute until the turn of the twenty-first century.
Ben Tillman died in 1918, but the violent racism he championed outlived him. Its victory was real and lasting. Removing the Tillman monument in Columbia, as legislators may choose to do, would spare many people insult. But statue or no statue, wherever the fear of blackness overcomes the principles of democracy, wherever the violence meted out against black people finds defense and justification, Tillman is still with us.