We understand the intention of Winthrop students who staged a symbolic lynching in front of Tillman Hall to use shock to educate. But we question their use of such a divisive and alienating symbol.
Students on Sunday were subjected to a view of 18 black nylon stockings filled with dirt and mulch suspended by rope from a tree in front of Tillman, Winthrop’s main administration building. A nearby sign read: “Tillman’s Legacy.”
The reference was to “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman – both a governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina – who was known as a bigoted firebrand and champion of segregation. He bragged of killing people and advocated lynchings of blacks if they tried to exercise their right to vote.
While he was a hero to poor white farmers and helped establish Clemson University and Winthrop College as a women’s training school for teachers, the naming of significant buildings on both campuses after him has sparked considerable controversy in recent years. It is crucial to note that the naming of Winthrop’s Tillman Hall, which had been known as Main Hall for decades, did not occur until 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement.
Renaming the building clearly was a defiant gesture toward the forces of integration.
The students who erected Sunday’s symbolic lynching in front of the hall call themselves the Association of Artists for Change. Speaking through a liaison, the group said the display was guerilla art, not vandalism.
“They wanted to provide a really shocking image to portray the accurate image of who Tillman was,” said Samantha Valdez, the group’s spokesperson.
Indeed, the image of black figures hanging from a tree was shocking. Symbolic lynchings generally are regarded as an implied threat toward African-Americans and often fall into the category of a hate crime.
This may be one of those symbols – like the swastika – that is irretrievably associated with hate and intolerance. While the Association of Artists for Change hopes to claim it for their own use, that might not be possible.
A number of those who objected to the display were black students. One said she felt personally attacked without understanding what the display was trying to convey. Another said seeing something that represents black people hanging from a tree felt disrespectful toward her as an African-American.
We think this discussion needs to occur. We have advocated changing the name of Tillman Hall back to Main Hall. And we think Winthrop’s Board of Trustees and other campus leaders should actively seek to persuade the state Legislature to approve a name change.
But we worry that such an incendiary display – whether you regard it as art or not – can be counterproductive and, in some cases, hurtful to fellow students. The creative students – of whom there are many on campus – should work to come up with better ideas.