On this day in history, the outspoken racist Benjamin Tillman, who advocated violence against African American voters, was elected Governor of South Carolina.
Tillman was born on August 11, 1847, in Edgefield, South Carolina on a plantation with 86 slaves. After the Civil War, Tillman himself became a landowner, and by 1876, Tillman was the largest landowner in Edgefield County. According to “‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman: The Most Lionized Figure in South Carolina History” (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) No. 58 (Winter, 2007/2008), pp. 38-39):
He rode through his fields on horseback much like the overseers of the antebellum period. He said at the time that his presence was required to ‘drive the slovenly Negroes to work.’”
Apparently he was not loathe to use the whip on his workers.
But his assaults on blacks began earlier. In 1873, two Edgefield lawyers and former Confederate generals, Martin Gary and Matthew C. Butler, proposed that white men form clandestine paramilitary organizations — known as “rifle clubs”— and use force and intimidation to drive African Americans from power. Members of the new white groups became known as Red Shirts. Tillman was an early and enthusiastic recruit for his local organization, called the Sweetwater Club.
From 1873 to 1876, Tillman (known as “Pitchfork Ben” because of his aggressive language) belonged to the Sweetwater Club, members of which assaulted and intimidated black would-be voters, killed black political figures, and skirmished with the African-American-dominated state militia. He later boasted about his participation in the Hamburg Massacre of six innocent black men, using his role in the riot to advance his political career. (About the massacre, The New York Times reported that he stated, “The leading white men of Edgefield [decided] to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson.” Tillman further described the massacre as an opportunity for “the whites [to] demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”)
The New York Times article (a review of a book about Tillman’s life, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz) further adds:
How could these execution-style murders of 1876 serve as the springboard for such extraordinary political advancement — and a legacy of racism that would keep Tillman’s name alive as Pitchfork Ben well into the 20th century? The explanation lies, Kantrowitz believes, in the determination of white men in the post-Civil War South to reclaim what they had lost through emancipation and the experience of Reconstruction: their sense of independent, unfettered manhood. ‘’Tillman sought to transform the slogan ‘white supremacy’ into a description of social reality, reconstructing white male authority in every sphere from the individual household to national politics,’ Kantrowitz, who teaches American history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes. Tillman’s constituents responded to his leadership because they too believed that the end of slavery and the enfranchising of blacks had set loose a threat to white society that had to be checked by whatever means necessary. It took a man like Tillman — an ideologue, an organizer and a terrorist” — to give voice to their fears and to translate their determination into physical and political action.”
As the two-term Governor of South Carolina, Tillman, the JBHE observed, “signed a large number of Jim Crow laws and wrote a new state constitution that effectively removed blacks from political power and instituted rigid racial segregation.”
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) noted that in his campaign:
Tillman promised to keep the state’s African American population in a position of permanent inferiority. In his inaugural address and throughout his administration, he emphasized white supremacy and the necessity to revoke African Americans’ rights. Concerning the education of African Americans, Tillman argued, ‘when you educate a Negro, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.’”
After his terms as governor, Tillman was elected United States Senator for South Carolina in 1895. There he became a strident defender of white supremacy. Throughout his tenure, he opposed African American equality, women’s suffrage, and any federal interference in state government.
When the 70-year-old Tillman died in 1918, he left behind a political legacy almost totally devoid of positive achievement. But, Kantrowitz reminds us, he left a powerful and tenacious legacy of another sort. In South Carolina, Tillman and his political allies ”fatally undermined the possibility of the development of a race-neutral language of manhood and citizenship.” The consequences of this perversion of democratic doctrine would burden the South deep into the 20th century.”
Ironically, as Slate reported, the rule famously used by Mitch McConnell in February 2017 to silence Elizabeth Warren “was created to protect delicate feelings of Senate’s foremost lynching advocate,” i.e., Benjamin Tillman. You can read about that rule here.
Tillman is immortalized by a larger-than-life bronze and granite memorial at South Carolina’s Statehouse, and both Tillman Hall at Clemson and Tillman Hall at Winthrop continue to bear his name. Some South Carolinians have lobbied to get the statue taken down. You can read an article on that campaign here.