Message of heritage overcome by hateful symbolism

Joyce Gilliard of Charleston celebrates the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds Friday in Columbia.

Hell did not freeze over and Earth did not stop spinning as some feared would happen Friday when the Confederate flag came down from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.

And the state’s Confederate heritage remains intact in history and in the minds of those who both salute and trample that flag.

The resolution to place the flag on the Statehouse dome some 53 years ago came with no end date. The move was to commemorate the Civil War, and for some it was a symbolic protest against federal desegregation efforts and civil rights. That doomed the state to decades of debate, turmoil and condemnation as legislators, for reasons of heritage or fear of voter reprisal, ignored the hurt of those who saw it as a symbol of hate and their repeated calls to bring it down.

The controversy came to a head in 1996 when Republican Gov. David Beasley voiced approval for furling the flag and placing it instead on a Statehouse grounds monument. In the angry aftermath of his failed effort, and despite his pledge to never raise the issue again, Beasley’s political demise was sealed. In 1998, he lost re-election to Democrat Jim Hodges.

Pro and con flag rallies and marches continued at the Statehouse. Some 6,000 flag supporters marched on the Capitol in January 2000. A march by some 45,000 flag opponents soon followed.

A month later, Hodges proposed a compromise similar to Beasley’s failed effort, one to move the flag off the Capitol dome to a nearby monument. His proposal gained no traction with lawmakers.

That April, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley led a 120-mile march to the Statehouse where thousands joined him in a protest demanding legislators bring down the flag.

As talk swirled of a possible compromise in the works, three black leaders — James Gallman, then state head of the NAACP; Lonnie Randolph, then 1st vice president, now president; and the Rev. Joe Darby, then 2nd vice president, now an AME Church presiding elder — struck up a conversation about the failure of the state to do the right thing.

Darby recalls they “not quite jokingly,” but quite prophetically, talked about how “the flag probably would come down if one of us got shot.”

Amid growing popular, political and economic pressure to remove the flag, lawmakers forged a compromise that moved it to a 30-foot pole on the Confederate Soldier Monument along busy Gervais Street directly in front of the Capitol.

The move pleased no one.

Within months, the National Collegiate Athletic Association slapped the football-loving state with, for many, an even more painful slight by joining the NAACP boycott and banning major college sports games from South Carolina.

But, in the years after, the compromise calmed many amid a sense of resignation and inevitability. The flag seemed all but forgotten as the state economy boomed, then went bust with the rest of the nation, and boomed again as Boeing set up shop in Charleston and the state churned into a manufacturing and export giant.

All the while, a young white man came of age in suburban Columbia, in lower Richland County and in rural parts of neighboring Lexington County. The Ku Klux Klan had an active chapter there in the late 1990s when two black churches were torched by Klan members in Clarendon and Williamsburg counties.

The Lexington County Klan chapter faded away in the following years, but the racist sentiment that fueled it still echoed in that sandy countryside.

Dylann Roof turned 21 in that environment.

There’s no indication he ever attended Klan or any white supremacist meetings or rallies. He didn’t need to. The voices of hate, racism and white supremacy had by then migrated to the Internet, where a 2,500-word manifesto believed to be authored by Roof attests to his conversion to the racist, white separatist world. The manifesto says he devoured postings about black-on-white crime on the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization with a webmaster who lives in Summerville.

Armed with that hate and a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, Roof is charged with the systematic murder of nine black worshippers at a Bible study on the evening of June 17 in Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church.

Their killings, and the forgiveness family members demonstrated toward Roof afterward, galvanized state officials, as nothing before had, to remove the flag that Roof was pictured clutching in online postings.

In just 23 dizzying days after the killings, the flag came down.

Two months before the Emanuel shooting, before Gov. Nikki Haley made an impassioned plea to the Legislature to remove the controversial flag, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Garry Trudeau talked about the power of satire and symbols.

Trudeau, whose comic strip Doonesbury famously satirized President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, spoke before an audience of journalists and educators at New York’s venerable Roosevelt Hotel. He talked about the 12 cartoonists at France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killed in January by two Islamic gunmen angered over the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The gunmen shouted during the attack, “the Prophet is avenged.”

Trudeau spoke of the resulting outrage in France and the Western world over the gunmen’s murderous violation of freedom of speech and how national leaders from across the world marched in Paris to show support for the dead cartoonists and their right to exercise free speech.

Trudeau talked of a red line of tone, taste and target that he so repeatedly crossed with Doonesbury’s satire, causing newspaper editors to pull the strip time and again.

In the process, Trudeau learned there really is a red line.

“What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.”

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this story.