Members of the South Carolina Legislature debating the removal of the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds in Columbia on Monday appeared to be on the same page – the flag that many see as a symbol of hatred and oppression should come down. But how, when and what should replace it was part of the first round of discussions among state lawmakers since a deadly, hate-fueled shooting in Charleston more than two weeks ago brought the controversial issue back to the national stage.
Democrats supporting the flag’s removal said decisive action now would promote reconciliation between black and white communities that has stalled while a pro-slavery and segregation-era symbol flies over an institution representative of all South Carolinians. Republicans who represent districts where removal of the flag isn’t popular will have support from state party leaders, should they face backlash for voting it down, an official said. But both parties seemed to agree that the groundswell against the banner is a reflection of residents’ desire to heal wounds ripped open by tragedy.
“We still have a very serious culture of division within our state,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a white Democrat from Camden, during the debate, streamed live online Monday. “[The flag is] one small piece of the division that we live with. We can do something about it this week, and we should.”
Sheheen, who ran for state governor in 2014, said the need for racial reconciliation in South Carolina was made evident for him on the campaign trail. A woman approached him and said angrily, “All you care about is black people and Mexicans,” he told his Senate colleagues. “There is a quiet bigotry that still exists, and if we, those of us who are white, don’t say anything… then we’re part of the problem.”
Republican Sen. Larry Martin, from Pickens, who was one of 29 co-sponsors of the senate legislation to remove the flag, said his constituents supported his position. “In the part of the state that I come from, there is a lot of strong sentiment about the Confederate flag,” Martin, who is white, said during the debate. His supporters also questioned “where will it end” for other symbols of the Confederacy, such as statues, street names and buildings, he said.
The legislation being considered by lawmakers in South Carolina would move the Confederacy’s infantry battle flag --- a blue X crossing a red background and embedded with 13 white stars, different from the "stars and bars" – from its location adjacent to the Confederate soldier monument on the statehouse grounds to a museum. Martin said he supported the legislation because it left other symbols of Confederate heritage intact.
The politics of relocating the Confederate flag have changed since it was debated 15 years ago. In 2000, there was consensus among members that the state should not fly the banner on the Capitol dome. But the debate, which took place over several months, hinged on a compromise to move it to its current location.
State party leaders say the June 17 killing of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, along with eight members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston where he was also pastor, will shorten the debate on the flag’s removal. The massacre was carried out by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who authorities said was motivated by racial hatred and appeared to be inspired by Confederate symbols. He faces murder and weapons charges, and is likely to be prosecuted under a federal hate crime statute.
“It’s terribly sad that it took the death of a state senator and eight others to take down a flag that sits on the state’s front porch and that’s not the best way to represent the values of South Carolina,” said Matt Moore, the chairman of the state Republican Party, in a telephone interview Monday.
“I have personally told every Republican [in the state party] that I will stand beside them if they support removing the flag,” Moore added. “I think any challenger who ran against someone because of their position on the flag, instead of other issues, would be an embarrassment and a shame.”
Both Moore and Jaime Harrison, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said they expected the Senate and House chambers to pass the bill this week, save for any disagreements about whether the Confederate flag would be flown on statehouse grounds ever again. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s a South Carolinian issue,” Harrison said. “We’ve been saying that from the very start. There’s not a lot of stomach for flying the Confederate flag. There should only be two flags flying: the American flag and the South Carolina flag.”
Of lawmakers polled recently by The Post and Courier newspaper, the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press, at least 33 senators and 83 House said they wanted to see the Confederate banner come down after Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and a bipartisan coalition of state and national leaders called for the flag’s removal. Those numbers constituted the two-thirds majority needed to remove the flag.
But there were a few voices who still vehemently opposed it. Republican state Sen. Lee Bright of Roebuck said the state's voters should decide whether the flag is moved, according to an AP report. "In South Carolina, we know what this flag symbolizes: resistance against a federal, centralized power that far overreached its constitutional limits,” Bright said in a statement. “It proudly symbolizes states' rights and constitutional liberties, which many have fought and died for."
Debate about the flag in the state House of Representatives was expected to take place in the afternoon on Monday, after a Senate vote on the legislation. Reached by phone earlier that day, Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston said any delay in a vote to remove the flag would dishonor Pinckney and others harmed by the racial hatred that many associate with the flag.
“If that unfortunate event hadn’t occurred, sadly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Gilliard said. “This is a blood-stained issue. Our main goal should be to get it off the taxpayers’ property.”
Gilliard added: “After the flag is down, we need to continue changing the hearts and souls of mankind. We are all one people in the eyes of God. And that flag doesn’t reflect that reality.”