Former governors reflect on raising of Confederate banner, failed try to lower it

Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley

Former Gov. Fritz Hollings remembers that in the early 1960s the Statehouse’s leading promoter of flying the Confederate flag was an Aiken County legislator who sometimes liked to wear his rebel uniform on the floor of the House.

The lawmaker, John May, was known as “Mr. Confederate.”

No one thought racism was behind the idea, Hollings said, contending hoisting the flag above the Statehouse was on account of the Civil War’s 1961 to 1965 centennial being recognized across the South and elsewhere.

“They thought a jackass was showing off,” Hollings also said of May’s over-the-top enthusiasm.

Former Gov. David Beasley risked his political career in 1998 after he let slip during a late-night news interview that after 36 years of flying above the Statehouse, he was unilaterally advocating bringing the flag down.

The announcement — done without consulting any lawmakers beforehand — triggered a huge backlash from lawmakers and conservative voters. Beasley’s career ended at just one term, something that looked to be an impossibility for an incumbent Republican.

Earlier this week, Beasley said he hopes that if good can come from the June 17 slayings of nine black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, including its pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, it will be the flag’s disappearance.

A 21-year-old white Eastover man named Dylann Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder in what authorities have said was a hate crime. Roof, an avowed white supremacist, is believed to have posted a racist manifesto on a website in which he is pictured holding a handgun and the Confederate flag. The killings, apparently motivated by Roof’s desire to start a race war, have led to renewed demands to remove the rebel flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“It’s very encouraging to see what’s transpiring right now,” Beasley said. “What happened to Sen. Pinckney and his eight fellow parishioners is such a tragedy that I do think that whatever evil was intended, God is doing some amazing things from this.”

Hollings, a Democrat, would go on to the U.S. Senate in 1966. Beasley left public life after his term ended. Before Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag’s removal this week, each became closely identified with the rebel banner, something neither had much control over in a state where lawmakers remain collectively more powerful.

Hollings said he remembers that the flag went up to mark the 100th anniversary of the war, with various lawmakers and committees looking at how best to mark the anniversary, including where it started at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

“Racism had nothing to do with the Confederate battle flag in my day,” said Hollings, 93, of Isle of Palms.

The flag went up on the dome and in the House and Senate chambers. Because there was not any legislative language or a mechanism to bring it down, the banners stayed. Some say they were kept in place to snub the federal government’s effort to advance desegregation and civil rights.

The flag would stay in place until the Legislature’s compromise of 2000 that moved it from the Statehouse dome to a pole at the Confederate monument outside.

After efforts by Beasley and others to remove the flag, the national NAACP called for a tourism boycott of South Carolina in 1999, and some groups responded by canceling conventions and meetings in the state. The boycott took hold in 2000, prompting rallies at the Statehouse by opposing sides.

The NAACP, however, found the new location unsatisfactory, and the boycott continued. The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, has enforced a moratorium on “pre-determined sites” in South Carolina since 2001 because of the flag.

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Fifteen years after the compromise, Hollings this week became one of four former governors who signed a statement advocating removing it now, saying it has pretty clearly become an adopted symbol of hate groups. The others included Democrats Dick Riley and Jim Hodges, along with Beasley.

Beasley said he got a sense the Legislature’s “change of heart” about the flag was real when he visited the Statehouse last week and heard an outpouring of favorable comments from other lawmakers. Also, from the sense of forgiveness demonstrated in Charleston after the shooting, he said.

“That’s South Carolina,” he said. “It’s not that flag. It’s that incredibly authentic brotherly love.”

Beasley only rarely thinks about the end of his career as governor because of his flag stance. “Occasionally it rips across your memory banks,” he said.

Hollings said another part of the tragedy is how accused shooter Dylann Roof, 21, who is white, was allowed to fall into a racist path as identified by his statements and pictures on the Internet.

“Somebody ought to be calling for the parents — the father who gave him the money for his birthday to buy the pistol,” Hollings said.” He had to know something was going on. His son was goofy.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.