The curious thing about laws is they can be repealed.
When South Carolina legislators meet two days next week to talk about money, they need to add repealing the Heritage Act to the agenda. Twenty years ago, the act passed as the fulcrum of a compromise to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome. Now, its time has come. It needs to be shelved itself, gone like prohibition and old laws on fugitive slaves, sodomy, investment banking and miscegenation.
Unfortunately, lawmakers sometimes seem to forget they have the power to get rid of a law when it is no longer useful. Somehow, even years later, they appear to convince themselves that they’ve dealt with a pesky issue by passing the old law. It’s as if they put on blinders, likely because they have so many other problems. They forget times and conditions change so much that old solutions need to be reconsidered.
Such is the case with the Heritage Act, which removed the flag off the dome in 2000 to the Statehouse grounds. But the act went further, creating an African American monument on Statehouse grounds and prohibiting removal of memorials on public property unless there’s a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate.
The last provision is today’s sticky wicket. It meant monuments like those of Confederate soldiers that dot courthouse squares around the state cannot be removed without a state legislative override. In other words, the state gets to decide what happens to monuments on the grounds of local, public parks. Seems a little heavy-handed, no? A way for the state to keep its ham-handed fist on all of those Confederate monuments glorifying the Lost Cause and, many feel, reminding minorities of a generational racial agenda in the Palmetto State?
Some state lawmakers say the Heritage Act is unconstitutional because the two-thirds provision is overly burdensome. Others say it violates home rule. Both are solid points, but there’s a remedy at hand: Fifty percent plus one of the state House and Senate members can vote Wednesday or Thursday to repeal the act. And then it will be over.
Interestingly, the vast majority of South Carolina legislators — 140 of the 170 in the two chambers of the Statehouse — have never had a chance to vote on the Heritage Act, according to an analysis by Statehouse Report. Almost 70 percent of current state senators haven’t had their say. About seven out of eight members of the House haven’t voted on it.
With all of the turmoil in the state, they should have a chance to vote again on the Heritage Act — this time to repeal it. Let’s not kick the can down the road.
Back in 2000 when the Heritage Act was approved, it got a lot of support because lawmakers who never thought the Confederate flag would be removed from the top of the Statehouse dome saw a ray of hope — and understood that the act would get it down. They pounced on the opportunity, figuring they’d deal with the devils in the deal later. Meanwhile, many white conservatives shelved the whole matter, figuring it had been dealt with.
But now come killings by police of unarmed black men from North Charleston to Minneapolis to Atlanta. Now comes the Black Lives Matter movement, which has unwound the festering bandage of racism that boils in our country. Now come protests, unrest and tension in our communities.
The Heritage Act was a remedy for its time. It has been changed once — in 2015, when lawmakers agreed, after the slaughter of S.C. Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight members of his church in Charleston, to move the battle flag off the Statehouse grounds into a place of history.
That’s where all of these monuments now need to go — away from our public places of honor into a museum or educational setting. Now is the time to repeal the Heritage Act once and for all. It’s time for local communities to have conversations, action and change on how they can start healing decades-old racial wounds and come together as a people.
Carpe diem, state representatives and senators. Deal with the devils in the Heritage Act. Be leaders and help our state to start the healing.
Andy Brack is the publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in our sister publication, Statehouse Report.