If he had his choice, South Carolina state Rep. Michael Pitts would keep the Confederate battle flag flying on state grounds. But the suggestion that he’s willing to compromise in a debate on the flag’s potential removal has prompted hostile messages and calls from his constituents, he said.
“I’m going to get abused by folks back home for saying I’ll take that flag down,” Pitts said during Wednesday’s debate among the state House of Representatives in Columbia. Some of Pitts’ colleagues and their families were even receiving death threats because of their stance on the flag removal issue, a state law enforcement agency confirmed.
— Michael Clark (@mclarkWBTV) July 8, 2015
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said lawmakers both for and against the flag’s removal have been receiving threats against their lives. However, the division's chief did not say how many threats had been logged nor how they were received, according to a report in the state newspaper of Columbia.
“To threaten the life or well-being of a lawmaker or their family is inexcusable,” Mark Keel said in a statement. “We recognize the First Amendment protections offered for free speech. [Threats are] not free speech; it’s illegal to threaten to kill or injure a public official or their immediate family.”
Debate over the Confederate flag has always roused emotions in the Deep South. Since the 1960s, the banner has been widely associated with pro-racial segregation and white supremacist groups. Last month, the flag was reportedly part of what inspired Charleston gunman Dylann Roof to carry out the shooting that killed nine African-Americans at a historically black church.
Civil War heritage groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said flying the flag is an innocent display of pride for their white ancestors and the black Confederate soldiers who fought and died beside them. For South Carolina lawmakers who represent districts as conservative as Pitts’, taking a stand against flying the flag is risky.
Pitts’ district in northwestern South Carolina includes Greenwood and Laurens counties, with the latter being the location where a former Ku Klux Klan member sparked controversy in the 1990s when he opened a Confederate-themed museum that was also dedicated to the racist terror group, according to a Politico report.