Historic S.C. triumph: Finally furling the flag

Gov. Nikki Haley addresses the audience before she prepares to sign the bill into law that will remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Columbia. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

The Confederate flag in front of the Statehouse finally became history with Gov. Nikki Haley’s signing of a bill Thursday to take it from the monument where it has flown for 15 years.

The outcome was a triumph for South Carolina — and for Gov. Haley, who called for the flag to come down following the shooting deaths of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17.

On Thursday, she credited the compassionate response of the family members of those slain for making possible the quick turnaround on the flag. Two days after the murders, family members expressed their forgiveness of the accused killer during a bond hearing for him. It was an unforgettable act of Christian charity.

The final success of the flag bill owed much to the perseverance of those House members who were willing to meet obstructionism with patience during a marathon session that ended early Thursday morning.

The flag will be furled Friday morning and taken to the Confederate Relic Room of the State Museum.

The Legislature’s sudden shift was in part a response to the loss of a colleague, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those slain. It also reflected a recognition of the painful message that the flag conveys to many South Carolinians. The man accused of the racially motivated crime posted photos of himself on the Web holding a Confederate flag and a handgun.

The flag vote was easily the most important action the legislative year. But the issue was still in doubt as House members debated into the early morning hours.

On Wednesday, the House struggled to overcome what might best be described as a filibuster by amendment. Faced with dozens of amendments, many sponsored by Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, legislative action was reduced to a crawl.

There were numerous pointless, time-consuming amendments to remove each monument at the Statehouse and replace it with shrubbery. One amendment called for the American flag at the Statehouse to be flown upside down.

And there was extensive discussion over an amendment to have an advisory statewide referendum to determine where the electorate stood on the issue. Of course, such a referendum couldn’t be held until 2016, or acted on before 2017. So it would have served to delay action for the long term.

Fortunately, those who supported the simple restorative act of bringing the flag down were clearly as committed to that goal as their counterparts in the Senate, which voted 36-3 to do so on Tuesday.

The House vote followed impassioned pleas from legislators who described passage of the bill as a necessity for the state and particularly the Charleston community.

“We owe it to the people of this state, we owe it to the families [of the Emanuel Nine] and we owe it to ourselves,” said Rep. John King, D-York. “Make South Carolina an inviting place for all people.”

Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, urged the House not to quit before making a decision: “Do this now. ... Let’s end this for South Carolina, for good.”

Flag supporters spoke about their strong attachment to the flag as representing the gallantry and sacrifices of their ancestors who fought under the banner in the Civil War.

But it is impossible to deny the negative associations that the flag has for many South Carolinians, black and white.

Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, cited its associations with the Ku Klux Klan, a link he witnessed as a youngster in the Upstate during the civil rights era. On Wednesday, he wondered what hate group might hijack the battle flag next.

“We need to move this divisive symbol from the front yard of the Statehouse,” said Rep. Clary, a retired circuit judge. He urged representatives to support the bill approved by “the Senate that has lost its colleague.”

Much of Monday’s Senate debate reflected the shock and dismay at the tragic deaths of Rev. Pinckney and his church members. In contrast, the debate in the House was centered around the flag’s importance to South Carolina’s heritage and the importance of keeping it, or another Civil War-era banner, at the monument.

But the divisions created by the flag were painfully evident in the House as the debate wore on into the night. By 8 p.m. Wednesday, Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, had clearly had enough of the heritage argument. While stating that she is a descendent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, she emphatically told the House that it was time to remove “this symbol of hate.”

“This issue isn’t getting better with age,” she said.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, pointedly described the battle flag as “a thumb in the eye to those in Charleston who lost loved ones.”

“With the flag standing out front, the entire African American community feels a pain,” Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, added. “The time is right, the need is great and the reasons are compelling.”

A sense of shared achievement was palpable at the Statehouse signing ceremony on Thursday afternoon as Haley honored those slain, their families and a Legislature that was able to come together to resolve the long-standing controversy in a meaningful way.

For too long, this flag has been a divisive symbol in South Carolina. Furling it should serve as a symbol of unity that all South Carolinians can support.