South Carolina weighs f lag issue
South Carolina legislators vote to debate its removal as pressure mounts.
Lawmakers there take the f irst steps toward removing the Confederate battle banner from Statehouse grounds.
COLUMBIA, S. C. — South Carolina lawmakers took their f irst steps Tuesday to remove the Confederate battle f lag from the Statehouse grounds amid a growing controversy over whether such symbols are racist or just a celebration of heritage.
As hundreds of protesters marched and prayed outside, lawmakers in the state House and Senate approved holding a debate on the banner, whose presence has taken on new urgency since last week’s attack by a white gunman on the landmark black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nine African Americans were slain, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. His body will lie in state at the capitol on Wednesday.
Civil rights activists had wanted the Confederate battle f lag removed before Pinckney’s body was in the building. But lawmakers couldn’t act that fast, despite calls to take down the f lag — from the governor, both of the state’s U. S. senators and most top politicians, white and black, on both sides of the aisle.
Legislative leaders have yet to decide when to call lawmakers back to debate and vote on removing the f lag. State Sen. Tom Davis said that debate was not likely until late July.
“We’re captive to the rules here, and the rules require a bill to be passed,” said Davis, a Republican. “Procedurally,” he said of the voice vote that moved the process along, “that was the Senate acting at lightning speed.”
The House held a moment of silence for Pinckney, then voted 103 to 10 to debate the f lag.
The South Carolina law that allows the Confederate battle f lag to f ly on Statehouse grounds came under intense scrutiny after the attack on the church June 17. Dylann Roof, 21, who had boasted of racist beliefs and had posed in photographs with Confederate f lags and symbols, is being held on nine murder charges.
“Never again may someone use that red rag to take people’s lives,” said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, a pastor and official with the National Action Network, to thunderous applause at the rally outside the Statehouse. “Make this day — this day — the day the f lag comes down.”
The Confederate f lag has f lown on the grounds of the Statehouse for more than f ive decades. The state first raised the f lag atop the capitol in 1961, the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War. The Legislature made the f lag’s position official the next year.
Many scholars note that the reemergence of the f lag in Southern states coincided with — and represented defiance against — the civil rights movement. Georgia incorporated the f lag into its state f lag in 1956 — two years after the U. S. Supreme Court declared, in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
“The Confederate f lag symbolizes more than the Civil War and the slavery era,” James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in a journal article about the f lag ’s history at Southern state capitols. “The f lag has been adopted knowingly and consciously by government officials seeking to assert their commitment to black subordination.”
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her position on the f lag Monday, calling for its removal from the Statehouse grounds.
She noted that for many South Carolinians, the f lag represents noble traditions of heritage and duty. But for many others, it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
Both of the state’s Republican U. S. senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, joined in calling for its removal. Graham, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, had publicly defended f lying the f lag as recently as last week, before national political pressure began to build from those who decried Confederate symbols as racist.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, called the Con- federate f lag “a symbol of our nation’s racist past that has no place in our present or our future.” She praised South Carolina’s leaders for taking steps to remove it from the Statehouse grounds. “It shouldn’t f ly there. It shouldn’t f ly anywhere,” she said Tuesday.
Clinton made the remarks at a black church near Ferguson, Mo., where a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white police officer in August. Brown’s death launched a national debate over race and inequities in the justice system.
Haley’s announcement led to other actions in the South.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, moved on Tuesday to banish the Confederate f lag from one of that state’s license plates.
In Mississippi, state House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from that state’s f lag, to which it was first added in 1894.
In Tennessee, Democrats and Republicans called for the removal of a bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader, from an alcove outside the state Senate’s chambers.
And several companies, including Sears, Amazon and EBay, moved to follow Wal- Mart, which had announced Monday that it would remove any items from its store shelves and website that featured the Confederate f lag.
PROTESTERS rally against the battle f lag Saturday outside the Statehouse in Columbia. Calls to banish Confederate symbols have continued to grow around the South since last week’s mass shooting at a black church.