Culture Club: Talking festivals, monuments, statues, arts and parades with the mayoral candidates
By Charleston Mercury Staff
In this edition, we have asked the mayoral candidates how they would change the way city manages its festivals and parades? What new monuments would you support and what, if any monuments or statues would you modify? We regret that Debra Gammons, Mika Gadsden and Julia Marsh did not respond to our outreach.
When it comes to our festivals, I believe the focus should be on showcasing our great city and all it has to offer without it being at the expense of people who live here. Our festivals, parades and events all offer opportunities to our locally owned businesses. It’s a chance to give someone in our town a chance to shine and to grow by doing what they love.
Our festivals should be hosted by Charleston, not just in Charleston. We want to be welcoming and hospitable to everyone, but with Charleston’s character and beauty at the forefront.
By amplifying our history and persona, Charleston doesn’t just have events around the people who live here but with them as well. We will work together to move our city forward and put our unity on display for all to come and see.
Our statues and monuments allow us another chance to tell the story of our city, all aspects of our rich history. We can show how our past is filled with people who have faced and overcome adversity while staring down seemingly insurmountable obstacles. From the Revolution to the civil rights era, our city has been a major influence on where we are as a country today.
Legends of Charleston can serve as inspiration for future generations to persevere and become leaders in our community — if we do it properly.
It’s important to tell the stories of heroes like Robert Smalls, who survived the horrors of slavery to change the course of history in our state and nation. A war hero who sailed himself to freedom and a first-generation politician, his life story should be shared. Currently, a small plaque next to the harbor is dedicated to Smalls. I would like to see his story told with grand honor in a public square as an example to those who may think they are facing the impossible.
By making an effort to honor the leaders of the past, we can help create the leaders of the future.
The integrity of the special events committee is critical to making sure the right questions are asked on the front end, risks are minimized and details are not overlooked when organizers of festivals and parades submit their application. To undermine this group or have sycophants serve on this committee is counterproductive. As mayor, I would review all city operations — not just this one — to ensure lessons learned and best practices are implemented, standards are upheld and the right work is being done on behalf of our residents.
As mayor, I will build on the need to ensure that the various festivals and parades that come to our city provide equitable economic development for our local small businesses and added visibility to women and minority owned businesses. Too often we do not leverage these events to benefit core groups of our community.
I would also create art districts throughout the city — there are many undiscovered parts of our city that make our community special and public art districts would address urban revitalization, environmental sustainability and equity. These districts would include a wide array of creative expressions: Sculptures, murals, performances, local centered festivals, light installations and more. Additionally, they provide citizens with a space to display public messages around common issues like public safety, gun violence, climate, public health, education and so much more. This would also bring intentional collaboration between the city and its residents, local businesses, civic leaders, nonprofits, philanthropy, schools and other institutions to advance solutions and bring programs to scale.
Creative expressions add value to our collective need to solve pressing problems and create opportunities. This activity would bring hidden talent to light and in doing so, our local economy grows stronger, neighbors and communities come together, all parts of our city have the potential to become more vibrant and communities that no longer exist may be actively highlighted and memorialized.
Historic monuments and statues have their proper place to be on display so that people may get the full context of the respective individuals and movements they represent. We should never ignore our past, nor should we gloss over certain parts of history to fit false narratives. We can have different perspectives, but we cannot have different sets of facts. I would seek to honor our local history makers by preserving the historical facts and aligning efforts among a diverse and inclusive set of historians to showcase our collective history.
Charleston is a prime location for festivals, parades and community events — we host numerous parades every year, including a Holiday and MLK Day parade. Additionally, residents enjoy various community events such as Farmer’s Markets and performances sponsored by Spoleto, Piccolo Spoleto, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and other cultural activities.
However, within the past seven years the city has lost some well-attended and financially beneficial festivals, specifically when we moved the Charleston Food and Wine Festival to North Charleston — a longtime signature event of our city. Our current mayor voted to allow city of Charleston taxpayer dollars to fund that event in a neighboring municipality. I voted against it.
As mayor, I will work with local organizations that host community-based events, festivals and parades to ensure they are held in Charleston. Specifically, I want to improve the city’s partnership with the Food and Wine Festival and provide the Charleston Animal Society with the resources it needs to host its annual Paws in the Park Festival downtown.
Charleston has an opportunity to celebrate the rich cultural diversity of its citizens. The
city has not adequately highlighted its role in the birth of our country. We need to respectfully celebrate our contribution to the early days of our city, state and country. We can do more and better recognize contemporary leaders who have contributed so much to our community. I oppose removing any statues or memorials in the city: Rather, I want to add statues and memorials recognizing our diversity with those who contributed to the city’s rich historical and cultural narrative.
As mayor, I will work with community members to find a permanent public home for the
John C. Calhoun statue. My fellow city council members and I voted unanimously to remove the statue in June 2020 after the current mayor assured us that he would relocate it to a suitable place. At the June 23, 2020, City Council meeting, the mayor advocated for removing the Calhoun statue “to preserve and protect the statue … and put it in an appropriate place where its history can be told …” At that same meeting, he announced the creation of an advisory task force “that will advise the city on the future location of Mr. Calhoun…” The resolution relocating the statute was unanimously adopted by city council and states that “the statue will be relocated to an appropriate site to be determined by the mayor in consultation with City Council.” The current mayor has not followed through with his responsibility in finding a suitable home for this statue.
With our city’s arts and culture currently enjoying a historic renaissance, I suspect that any political consultant worth his keep would advise me to spend the next few hundred words waxing poetic about the arts in Charleston. And I’m indeed proud of our city’s many achievements in that area during the past eight years: The naming of Charleston’s first poet laureate, our early support of the Charleston Literary Festival and improved collaboration between the city and Spoleto, Piccolo Spoleto and the Gaillard — just to name a few.
But as mayor, I’ve always believed that our citizens’s concerns should come first. And in the case of this question, I suspect that means monuments, particularly the Calhoun monument, which City Council and I voted unanimously to remove in 2020. So, without further ado and with apologies to any political consultants out there, I’d like to address that issue straight on.
For me, the monuments discussion begins with a question that government too seldom asks: What is the limiting principle here? How do we as elected officials know when to act, and just as important, when not to? Without a clear answer to that question, common sense and basic liberties can never be fully safe from the ever-present dangers of good intentions and unconstrained benevolence — which is really just another way of saying that, in government as in life, rules are important. And with regard to monuments, including Calhoun, these are the three rules I’ve applied as mayor — rules that have led me to support one removal and oppose others:
Addition is preferable to subtraction. In general, we should be adding new monuments, plaques and other historical markers rather than removing them. That’s why I asked our History Commission to create new language to be added to the Calhoun memorial in 2017, and the reason I was so disappointed when City Council decided not to move forward with that plan, leaving Calhoun in the highest point of honor in our city with no context, eventually forcing an all-or-nothing decision.
The law applies to all — government, citizens — everyone. If a monument must be removed, the law must be followed. That means no mobs pulling the statue down and no acts of civil disobedience by local government. In the case of the Calhoun monument, it was only removed after a vote of City Council in open session, and both the city and the state attorney general agree that the Heritage Act did not apply.
Historical figures must be judged fairly. As British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So, we must judge people, including Mr. Calhoun, in the context of their times. And while I respect those who disagree, I believe that he was wrong even by that standard when he claimed that slavery was a “positive good” for black people due to their innate inferiority and that “[s]lavery is indispensable to a republican government” — radical views in his era as well as our own.