Poll: Support enough to remove flag House, Senate have majority needed to banish divisive Confederate emblem

The S.C. Legislature has amassed the support necessary to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, potentially ending a decades-long, divisive battle over the banner’s fate, according to a survey of lawmakers led by The Post and Courier.

The poll of lawmakers has determined that both the House and the Senate have achieved the two-thirds majority needed to take the flag down, if all supporters were to cast their votes. At least 33 senators and 83 House members say the flag should go.

“I just think that it’s time,” Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, said Monday. “It’s causing too many problems. ... I think it needs to be in a place of honor, but probably not on the Statehouse grounds.”

The issue has heated up following the June 17 killing of nine people, including a state senator, at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, allegedly by a white supremacist who is pictured with a Confederate flag in photos on the Internet.

Members of both chambers have been notified that they are scheduled to return to Columbia on July 6 at 1 p.m. to tackle vetoes and the flag debate. A vote in the Senate could potentially occur that same day.

The Post and Courier has been surveying lawmakers since last week to pin down their positions on the issue. On Monday, the newspaper compared its results with survey findings from the South Carolina Press Association and the Associated Press, and it was determined that sufficient support existed in the two chambers to take the flag down.

The flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1962 in what some saw as a show of defiance to integration and the civil rights movement.

After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument along the street in front of the Capitol in 2000 after a compromise was worked out between black lawmakers and the majority Republicans. The compromise also dictated the two-thirds majority needed to move the flag.

The Senate achieved that milestone last week, with the survey showing that 72 percent of the chamber supported the flag’s removal. The House hit the two-thirds mark on Monday.

Some lawmakers were quick to throw their support behind the effort. Others were more circumspect, taking additional time to chat with constituents or waiting until most of the funerals in Charleston had taken place.

Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry County, finally weighed in over the weekend, explaining his position in a lengthy post on his Facebook page. He said he planned to support the flag’s removal in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator killed in the shooting.

“While I have long regarded the flag as a symbol of Southern history and heritage, it has clearly been co-opted by those who harbor feelings of racial enmity, and it has become a symbol of division and hatred,” he stated. “For that reason, I can no longer support flying the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the State House in Columbia.”

Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, expressed similar sentiments in his own Facebook post, lamenting that a banner he associated with heritage and pride had become a symbol of hate for others.

“And this is the turning point for me — any symbol endorsed by a state should unify her people,” he stated. “The Confederate Battle Flag certainly does not. Rather, it divides in unimaginable ways as evidenced last week. This is why the flag should be removed to a museum.”

Others were a bit more nuanced. Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington County, told the Associated Press Monday that he thinks the battle flag must come down, but he would be open to discussing another flag from the Confederacy taking its place to memorialize ancestors killed in the Civil War. So far, only 11 lawmakers have signalled their intent to oppose furling the flag. The remainder in both chambers either haven’t decided, won’t say where they stand or have not responded to multiple requests from The Post and Courier to state their position.

College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said he was a bit surprised at the strong support in the conservative Legislature to remove the flag. But he said it likely reflects a “big public shift” that has taken place recently in South Carolina and nationally toward removing symbols of the Confederacy.

House members have introduced two bills that call for the battle flag’s removal. But the bills are expected to be channeled through committees, potentially delaying a final vote for several weeks.

Senators, however, allowed for a bill in that chamber to skip the committee process last week. That could mean that senators might take the first vote as early as July 6, sending it to House members and potentially settling the issue before their bills make it through committee.

Jason Emory Parker contributed to this story.