Reasserting White Supremacy: South Carolina’s Ben Tillman and the 2016 presidential election

On July 10th, 2015, members of a South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard reeled down the Confederate flag from a pole in front of the statehouse. Ten thousand onlookers roared excitedly as the flag descended, some cheering “USA! USA! USA!” – a traditionally patriotic shout that took on new meaning when chanted at the flag representing the Confederate cause, a cause based in treason against the United States.



Activist Bree Newsome removes the Confederate flag from the pole at South Carolina’s Statehouse on June 27, 2015. In the foreground is a monument to the Confederate dead. Newsome was arrested shortly after this and the flag was restored to its place for another two weeks. Courtesy REUTERS/Adam Anderson.

An anti-civil rights state government first raised the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse in 1961. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led direct action against the flag starting in the late 1990s, culminating in 2000’s inaugural King Day at the Dome where 50,000 protesters marched against the Confederate Flag (the author was in attendance as an eleven-year-old). Because of this activism, the South Carolina legislature moved the flag to a pole in front of the capitol, still on the statehouse grounds – an imperfect compromise indeed. But fifteen years later, on June 17th, Dylann Roof, motivated by white supremacist ideologies, shot and killed nine black parishioners of the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Opposition to the flag’s prominent display resurged. The South Carolina legislature, which Governor Nikki Haley called back into session for this express reason, mandated its removal.

Less than a month later, a massive crowd gathered in the scorching July heat to watch the removal ceremony. Any attendees who turned away from the flagpole, though, may have wondered why another monument on the statehouse grounds wasn’t undergoing similar scrutiny. Standing on a tall granite pedestal, a statue of Benjamin Tillman faced the descending Confederate flag. Tillman is rendered in weathered bronze, shoulders pugnaciously thrown back, mouth set in his characteristic frown, the socket of his missing eye sunken and shaded by his brow. At the ceremony for the removal of the Confederate flag, had he been present, he would have appeared to be glowering at the proceedings, infuriated by even a symbolic act of racial parity in his state.

His state – a state that he fought to secure for white men through violent rhetoric, violent organizations, and violent action. Tillman’s ascendance to political power as governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and as U.S. senator from 1895 until his death in 1918 deserves particular attention because of its relevance to this election season. While himself the son of a wealthy white planter, Tillman tapped into the anger and insecurity of poor white residents of South Carolina after Reconstruction to raise a populist front rooted in white supremacy and white masculinity. This pure-white power structure would lift up and enable the economic success of white South Carolinians – and it would render Reconstruction and its legacy of black empowerment an abhorrent mistake. In Tillman’s formulation, the steps necessary to ensure a white future for the state ranged from disenfranchisement to dispossession to lynching. In 1892, for example, Tillman declared that he would “willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault on a white woman.”[1]


The Tillman statue. Courtesy Sean Rayford, for the Charleston City Paper

His critics, among them wealthy Democrats of the party establishment, mocked his vulgar language and claimed to disdain his overtly violent tactics. But this short-sighted smugness from members of his own party only fanned his popularity with poor white South Carolinians, who failed to realize that Tillman rarely took substantive action to protect their interests and that his primary interest was in the assertion of his own power. Historian Stephen Kantrowitz, in his brilliant biography of Tillman, warned us in 2000 that:

‘His enemies mistook style for substance; we must not repeat that error. Tillman was no radical. He led no mass movement. Although he claimed to represent reform, he had in the past championed policies hostile to poor men’s interests.’ [2]

A potent brew of martial manhood and racial hierarchy fomented Ben Tillman’s ethos. Born to a wealthy planter in 1847, Tillman grew up in Edgefield County, a notoriously violent place even within the context of the militarized antebellum South. Tillman’s immediate family epitomized these entwined forces of white supremacy and aggression. Tillman’s father had killed a man and been convicted of rioting; one of his brothers died dueling, another in a domestic dispute; a third shot during the Mexican-American War; a fourth was a Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War; and a fifth shot a man who claimed he cheated at gambling. This atmosphere of brute force and hyper-masculinity during his childhood and adolescence likely boosted Tillman’s confidence in the efficacy and rightness of violent tactics for conserving South Carolina’s racial order. He put these supremacist ideas to work during a volatile period in national history.

After the war, Tillman rebuilt his family’s antebellum wealth and threw his money and influence behind defeating South Carolina’s Republican, pro-civil rights government. From 1873 to 1876, he led white supremacist militias that harassed, intimidated, and killed Republican political participants and elected officials, both black and white. One of the most infamous moments of the white “redemption” of South Carolina’s government was the Hamburg Massacre, in which a white militia sieged the meeting place of black protesters who had marched through Hamburg. The militia killed seven; in self-defense, the African Americans killed one white man. Reflecting on the carnage in 1909, Tillman said:

‘It was now after midnight, and the moon high in the heavens looked down peacefully on the deserted town and dead negroes, whose lives had been offered up as a sacrifice to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasian in South Carolina.’ [3]

In another notable incident, also in 1876, two of Tillman’s militiamen assassinated black state senator Simon Coker in broad daylight, in the thoroughfare of a small town. Senator Coker had kneeled to pray when Tillman’s militiamen rode down the street and shot him down. Because of these violent campaigns against Republican voters, Tillman helped usher in the governorship of Democrat and former Confederate General Wade Hampton III.


A Harper’s Weekly cartoon by George Colt published on September 2, 1876, arguing that Democrat presidential nominee Samuel Tilden’s letter of acceptance of the nomination could not “paper over” Democratic support of violence against African Americans.

Tillman quickly turned on Hampton and men like him. Hampton represented an elite that veiled its white supremacy and landed wealth with a patina of racial and classist paternalism. Eschewing the role of the genteel white planter, Tillman forged an electrifying image of himself as a fiery backwoods farmer who ripped into establishment Democrats and fought tooth and nail to overthrow black, Republican political power in the state. (Famously, Ben Tillman was known as “Pitchfork Ben” after he declared that he wanted to poke President Grover Cleveland with a pitchfork.) According to Tillman, the white elite would never advocate for poor southern whites; and black Republicans kept poor whites from succeeding economically and usurped their place in South Carolina’s government. These divide-and-conquer tactics and language redolent of the backcountry endeared him to poor southern whites. This populace was desperate to assert themselves against wealthy whites who had long controlled state government and to claim a political and economic heritage that African Americans had supposedly stolen from them. They thought that they had found a champion in Tillman, and Tillman reveled in his role as savior.

Tillman’s populistic persona, which concealed his own position as a wealthy man of the planter class, launched him into South Carolina’s governor’s office in 1890 and provided him with a senatorial seat for twenty-two years. He was elected in 1890 thanks in large part to his cooperation with the Farmers’ Alliance, a nation-wide agrarian movement dedicated to progressive economic and agricultural reform. The Alliance transformed into the Populist Party shortly thereafter, and Tillman adopted and deployed the rhetoric of the populists – even as Kantrowitz contends that Tillman was no true populist. Despite Tillman’s self-promotion as an “Agricultural Moses,” a title popularized in the 1880s, he opposed numerous agrarian reform bills that would have relieved the economic burdens of poor white farmers. He also enacted disenfranchisement laws, ostensibly to target African Americans, that imposed educational and property qualifications for voting that many poor whites failed.[4] His most “constructive” project was to establish Clemson College (now Clemson University), an agricultural school in South Carolina’s upstate, in 1893.[5] Tillman hoped that Clemson would offset the Citadel, a military college, and South Carolina College (today the University of South Carolina), both institutions of higher learning that Tillman argued served only the white elite of the state. He scornfully derided the Citadel as a “dude factory” – an insult implying that white elite masculinity did not represent true masculinity at all, but a gelded effete.[6]

And most destructively, Tillman advocated for the passage of South Carolina’s Jim Crow constitution. This constitution, instituted in 1895, was the pinnacle of white power’s bloody redemption in the state, a war that white Democrats had fought as though it were an extension of the Civil War itself. Hampton’s election to the governorship in 1876, which coincided with President Rutherford B. Hayes’s compromise that withdrew federal troops from the former Confederacy, was the first major victory in this sustained war against black civil rights and, thus, the legacy of the Union’s Civil War victory. With the 1895 Constitution, Tillman saw the refutation of that victory and the re-anointment of the Confederate cause of white supremacy, modified for a populist era. Speaking to the constitutional convention, he referenced that first triumph in 1876:

‘How did we recover our liberty? By fraud and violence. We tried to overcome the thirty thousand majority by honest methods, which was a mathematical impossibility.’ [7]

This was the Tillman model. It may be difficult to recognize “liberty” in his world of racialized violence and outright lies. It may be stripped of what many idealistic, well-meaning Americans assume liberty is supposed to represent. Many Americans believe that liberty has a universal, equitable meaning – but it has historically shown itself to be contextual and contingent. For Tillman, a white supremacist and a demagogue, liberty meant freedom for white men and structural assurance of white power, so that the indignities and losses of the Civil War and Reconstruction would never be repeated. Liberty, post-Reconstruction, allowed Tillman’s brand of chicanery and violence to flourish. Liberty meant a path to power for Ben Tillman.


Ben Tillman around 1910. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

As crowds cheered in 2015, some of those onlookers were bunched around Tillman’s statue, peering around and over the pedestal and his bronze feet. The removal of the Confederate flag would have maddened Tillman, make no mistake. His goal was to reinstate white supremacy reminiscent in its totality and omnipresent power of the antebellum slave state. The lowering of the flag represented, at least in small measure, a moment when it seemed as though South Carolina was working toward a narrative that did not enshrine the white supremacy inherent in the Confederate cause and its various later versions.

But that was in July of 2015. It is now November 2016. The presidential election this year has sparked yet another resurrection of white supremacist power and launched its most brazen agents into the highest levels of the federal government. Today, we should re-examine the stories that we tell ourselves: that Americans agree in a liberty that is inclusive rather than exclusive; that the Confederate flag’s removal represented an indubitable, firm step forward; that our society has no place for men like Tillman. Tillman may have been an uncouth charlatan with blood on his hands, but he rose to political prominence because of that idiosyncratic, fraught magnetism. He reaffirmed white supremacy in South Carolina. He proudly bequeathed to his state a long-lived legacy of racialized brutality and disenfranchisement. He even remade liberty in his own image. Today, despite his temporary dismay at the removal of the Confederate flag in view of his statue, I imagine that Tillman might feel vindicated.

We must not repeat that error.


[1] Find it in Larry Keller, “Duke claims triumph at shortened, relocated Euro conference,” from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nov. 13, 2008.

[2] Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman & The Reconstruction of White Supremacy, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000, 6.

[3] Found in Lawrence Ross, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 187.

[4] Kantrowitz, 8.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 131.

[7] George B. Tindall,  “The Question of Race in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895,” The Journal of Negro History, (July 1952), 37 (3): 277–303, p. 294.

6 thoughts on “Reasserting White Supremacy: South Carolina’s Ben Tillman and the 2016 presidential election

  1. Isn’t this argument based on the assumption that the Confederate flag is NECESSARILY a symbol of racism? Is there any flag on earth today that hasn’t failed to produce a society free of judgment? Isn’t a judgment of a judgment also a judgment? I highly respect your research and passion. What if this symbol SHOULD be preserved so that it underscores the heart of “Never again”? Thank you for the excellent post!

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