Confederate flag at issue
Despite new calls to remove it from South Carolina’s Capitol, the law and politics pose formidable obstacles.
Despite South Carolina controversy, it’s unlikely to come down.
In the hours after a gunman entered a Charleston church and shot nine black people to death, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-staff for nine days.
But one banner continued to wave tall at a war memorial on the Capitol grounds — the Confederate flag, a symbol fraught with emotion and political complexity in the Southern state, and one apparently celebrated by the suspected gunman, Dylann Roof.
Speaking in Charleston on Friday, Cornell William Brooks, national NAACP president, demanded the flag be removed, saying that while “some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by,” the flag is “lifted up as an emblem of hate and a tool of hate.”
The discussion set off a flurry of statements by public officials. A White House spokesman said President Obama believes “the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the flag is “part of who we are,” and that flying it over the memorial “works here,” though he said hewas open to revisiting the issue.
Why can’t state leaders take down this old, embattled standard, or even lower it to half-staff?
Theyare not allowed to— not without a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Republican-controlled state Legislature. A law enacted in 2000, which removed the rebel flag from the dome of the statehouse, prevents any modifications to state monuments without a supermajority.
That part of the law makes it extremely unlikely that such a vote could be successful anytime soon.
“It’s like getting political Ebola,” said David Woodard, a long time Republican political consultant and professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina, of the Confederate flag issue. “Any time you touch it you’re going tomake more enemies than friends.”
Woodard recalled the hard-fought battle in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People announced a boycott on tourism to the Palmetto State in protest of the flag.
Then-Gov. David Beasley lost reelection in1998, in part because of his campaign to take down the Confederate flag, Woodard said.
“It was just a very, very tense situation, and you weren’t going to come up with a solution that was going to make everybody happy,” Woodard said.
Tens of thousands of people marched on the Capitol in Columbia to protest the flag, and several thousand others fromthe Sons of Confederate Veterans stood on the statehouse steps — in uniform, Woodard said.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, who was the majority leader of the state House of Representatives at the time, said the fierce debate made for strange bedfellows. In an effort to stall a compromise, members of the black caucus who wanted to exorcise the flag from the Capitol grounds joined forces with lawmakers who refused to vote to have it removed from atop its dome.
After months of debate and a final marathon session, Republican leaders wrought the compromise that hard-liners on both sides had feared: The flags hanging on the dome and in each of the legislative chambers would be moved to the state museum, and a new one would be erected on a 30foot flag pole at the Confederate war memorial outside the statehouse.
But any other changes to the monument — or any other in the state — would require the two-thirds vote.
In a floor statement at the time, Quinn called it “the most difficult vote I have ever cast,” and praised the flag as an “honorable symbol” that “does not stand for hate.”
“There are some people who are clearly racist, who have tried to seize the flag as their emblem,” Quinn told The Times on Friday. “But others feel it is a soldier’s banner” that honors the lives lost during the Civil War, and still others have come to see it as a symbol of rebellion against government intrusion.
“Those people have a bloc of votes in South Carolina, and they have a bloc of votes in the General Assembly,” Quinn said.
The flag was first raised over the Capitol in1961, when the Legislature was controlled by Democrats, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Despite the raw emotion surrounding last week’s shootings, Woodard said, most state leaders considered the issue closed, and have little incentive to address it again.
“What they did was set the bar real high so they wouldn’t have to revisit it again, because it was so painful,” hesaid. “They don’t want to have to go back there.”
PROTESTERS demand that the Confederate flag be removed from a war memorial at the Capitol in Columbia, S.C. A two-thirds vote by lawmakers is required.