SC Lawmakers Vote on Confederate Flag
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to consider removing the Confederate battle flag from their Statehouse grounds as politicians took aim at Civil War-era symbols in other states, saying change is imperative after police said nine black churchgoers were slain in a hate crime.
Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley’s call the day before to move the flag to a museum, lawmakers approved a measure enabling a flag debate by a vote of 103-10 in the House and a voice vote in the Senate.
Very few lawmakers rose to say the flag should stay, although some said they were saving speeches for what promises to be an emotional debate later this summer.
Haley’s unexpected reversal – quickly seconded by leading Republicans including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – gave others the political opening to announce their moves. Many cited the church slayings as they abandoned the long-held position that even debating the status of the flag would be too racially divisive today.
“Last week’s terrorizing act of violence shook the very core of every South Carolinian,” South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas said in support of the measure.
Dylann Storm Roof, who faces murder and gun charges in the church attack, had posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and told a friend that he was planning to do something “for the white race.”
Once South Carolina took action, other states moved quickly.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag. Both Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from the Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag replaced. McConnell joined Kentucky’s Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, in calling for the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from their state Capitol’s rotunda.
Big businesses also took action: Wal-Mart, e-Bay and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, which e-Bay called a “contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”
The first South Carolina senator to take the floor and call for moving the flag to a museum was the son of the state’s most powerful politician of the last century, U.S. senator and segregationist standard-bearer Strom Thurmond, whose statue stands on the side of the Statehouse opposite the Confederate flag, striding confidently southward.
State Sen. Paul Thurmond said the church attack compels flag supporters to reconsider. The Charleston Republican said he loves his ancestors, but isn’t proud of a heritage that included holding people in bondage, and wants to send a strong message to anyone contemplating a hate crime.
“I can respond with love, unity and kindness,” Thurmond said, “and maybe show others that the motivations for a future attack of hate will not be tolerated, will not result in a race war, will not divide us, but rather strengthen our resolve to come together.”
Outside in the sweltering heat, where hundreds chanted “bring it down, bring it down,” civil rights activist Kevin Gray said it’s time to stop using the word “victims” to describe the people slain inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church. They are martrys, he said, and if Confederate symbols come down around the South, their deaths will not have been in vain.
There were a handful of dissenting voices in the crowd that gathered next to the Confederate monument where the flag flies atop a 30-foot pole in front of the Statehouse, in full view of the U.S. and state flags flying at half-staff.
“This flag is heritage. If you take it down you won’t get rid of racism. The flag didn’t pull the trigger. The flag didn’t kill anybody. That was an individual that did that,” said Mark Garman, 56, who like Roof is from Eastover.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and lawmakers decided in 1962 to keep it there in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, a smaller, square version was moved to the flagpole out front in 2000.
Some lawmakers insisted that this week is still not the right time for a public debate.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s coffin will be on display in the Statehouse Rotunda. On Friday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver his eulogy at the “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston.
But Najee Washington, granddaughter of victim Ethel Lance, said swift action would mean a lot to her family.
“That would be great,” said Washington, 23, who lived with Lance. “It’s just a part of the past that we don’t need to be reminded of every day.”