New flag debate unfurls passions

A crowd gathers at the Statehouse grounds in Columbia for a rally calling for the removal of the Confederate flag.

COLUMBIA — The S.C. Legislature agreed Tuesday to consider taking down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, where it has flown as part of a Civil War memorial for the past 15 years.

The House voted 103-10 while the Senate approved by voice vote broadening the subjects that can be taken up during the current special session.

Soon after the Senate voted, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, introduced a bill calling for moving the flag from Statehouse grounds to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. Debate on it could begin as early as next Tuesday when lawmakers are called back into session.

Across the hall, House members also filed two bills that called for the removal of the flag, but debate will be delayed while they go through committees.

A two-thirds majority was needed to allow discussion, and the same margin will be needed in both the House and Senate to change the flag’s location.

The vote came after hundreds of people rallied outside the Capitol chanting “Bring it down, bring it down” to demand that lawmakers remove the flag from the Civil War soldiers memorial on Statehouse grounds.

The Confederate flag has been assailed as a symbol of racism in the wake of the killing of pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other parishioners on June 17 during Bible study at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church. President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy for Pinckney at his funeral on Friday.

Dylann Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist pictured holding a Confederate flag on a website where he allegedly posted a racist manifesto, has been charged with nine counts of murder in the church shooting.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he believes it’s both impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic this week.“I prefer us to not do that out of respect for the services that will be held,” said Martin, R-Pickens.

With temperatures climbing toward the 90s, speakers urged demonstrators to pressure lawmakers to remove the flag from the monument, where it has flown since 2000. Before that, it had flown from the top of the Capitol dome, where it had been placed in 1962 to mark a Civil War centennial and, according to some, to show the state’s defiance of integration orders.

Sens. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston; Kevin Johnson, D-Manning; and Sheheen were among those who addressed the rally. Beaufort Sen. Tom Davis was the sole Republican lawmaker who spoke to the crowd.

Davis called the flag a symbol of heritage, but also one of pain to many. With emotions running high on both sides of the debate, Davis said it is important for lawmakers to respect the differing views held by their colleagues.

Those emotions boiled over during the rally, with a shouting match breaking out at the base of the Confederate monument where the rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole, in full view of the U.S. and state flags that were lowered to half-staff to honor the nine black church members slain last week in what authorities describe as a racial hate crime.

“This flag is heritage. If you take it down, you won’t get rid of racism. The flag didn’t pull the trigger. The flag didn’t kill anybody. That was an individual that did that,” said Mark Garman, 56, of Eastover, one of a handful of flag supporters in the crowd of hundreds.

Tom Clements knows this heritage — he brought a poster displaying details and photos about his great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy, and three great-great-uncles who died for the South. He said he loved the Confederate flag growing up but now sees it as a symbol of oppression.

“The racists took over the memories of the Confederacy,” said Clements, who joined the chants of “Bring it down.”

Dozens of officers from different police agencies kept watch but did not intervene. More were positioned inside the Statehouse, where Gov. Nikki Haley, in a stunning reversal of the position lawmakers had held to for 15 years, said Monday that the flag should be removed and put in a museum.

“The governor and members of the leadership of South Carolina made a great step forward by indicating that the flag should come down,” said Malcolm Graham, a former North Carolina state senator and the brother of shooting victim Cynthia Hurd. “Whether it comes down today, tomorrow or next week, it’s important that there’s one flag that all citizens of South Carolina are governed by.”

With calls to remove the Confederate flag multiplying across the state and country, S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore said he believes both parties are committed to bringing it down.

“With enough political will, anything can be done,” Moore said. “There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds.”

Leaders in other states swiftly followed Haley’s lead — Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag and, in Tennessee, Democrats and Republicans said a bust of Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest should be removed from the Senate.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday ordered the replacement of vanity plates depicting the Confederate flag, saying the banner is “hurtful” for too many people.

Large employers in South Carolina, including Michelin and BMW, and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce have endorsed Haley’s call, and numerous retailers announced Monday that they will no longer sell items that feature the Confederate flag.

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.

For years, South Carolina lawmakers declined to revisit their decision, saying it was a bipartisan solution. Nationally, politicians deferred to South Carolina in determining the appropriate location.

After Haley’s announcement Monday, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the call to remove it.

Haley not only called for the flag’s removal but pledged to call legislators back to Columbia if they don’t deal with it in the next few weeks.

“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it,” the governor said.

Nevertheless, she said, it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” and doesn’t belong in such a public space.

Earlier, Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page joined with elected officials from seven other Lowcountry cities and counties to urge the Legislature not to delay in removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, joined the approximately 18 elected officials to call for the flag’s removal. “I don’t look at the flag as a symbol of hatred, but unfortunately, hate groups have co-opted the flag,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.