COLUMBIA — The Confederate flag flew once again Sunday at the South Carolina Statehouse, when members of the S.C. Secessionist Party raised the banner on the one-year anniversary of its removal.
Bringing their own 30-foot pole with them, flag supporters raised the flag shortly after 11 a.m. in an attempt to show the rest of the state their Southern pride and heritage would not be erased, said party founder James Bessenger.
“Our flag is missing and we’ve come to put it back. So without any more delay, let’s put it back,” Bessenger said to kick off the rally that at its peak drew about 150 people.
Sunday marked one year since the General Assembly’s removal of the rebel banner from display in response to the murder of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Accused shooter Dylann Roof was seen posing with the flag in pictures posted online. His acts helped fuel a nationwide Confederate backlash.
Bessenger lamented what was a smaller turnout than a similar event held two years ago. A handful of flag supporters still were on Statehouse grounds shortly after 2 p.m.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, (angry) South Carolinians looked like men standing behind muskets and cannons,” Bessenger said. “A hundred and fifty years later, (angry) South Carolinians are sitting behind keyboards and fussing on Facebook.” He added, “something has to change, or we will not exist.”
The rally wrapped up two hours earlier than planned at 3 p.m. so flag supporters could allow law enforcement officers to head home, Bessenger said.
A small group of people from S.C. Red, Black, Green — the colors of the African national pride movement — stood outside the barricades shouting their disapproval at supporters of the Confederate flag.
The flag rally drew some protesters, including Columbia resident Steven Xavier, who said he stopped by the rally to spread love.
“That flag they’re holding represents hate, and that’s all it represents,” he said. “You can’t say that your flag represents heritage if you’ve got a hate group running around with your flag killing thousands of innocent people.”
Bessenger urged attendees to learn the history of the Confederacy, to educate those who he says don’t understand what the flag stands for.
“‘Heritage not hate’ does not work anymore,” Bessenger said. “You have to be able to explain why that flag means heritage and not hate. You have to be able to defend your heritage. Read a book. Watch a documentary. Find out what those men did. They were defending something; find out what that is.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said that as of early afternoon it had been a successful day with no incidents reported.
“We’ve had two opposite groups here today and they’ve both said their piece and talked and there hasn’t been any violence,” he said. “And that’s why we’re actually here. To make sure there’s no violence.”
Lott pointed out that there likely were more members of law enforcement in attendance — including trained police snipers on top of the Statehouse and helicopters circling overhead — than rally attendees and counter-protesters combined.
“And that’s what you want to do,” Lott said. “You want to have more officers than the other side to make sure you have that high visibility.”
Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.