COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate battle flag was still flying high atop a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina Statehouse on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to honor their beloved black colleague with a viewing in the Rotunda.
But elsewhere around the nation, leaders were already demoting the historic but divisive symbol. By the order of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday, four Confederate flags displayed for two decades around a large monument to secessionist soldiers outside that state’s capitol were being were being taken down.
No Alabama law prohibits the removal of the flags by executive order, said a Bentley spokeswoman who called the flags “a distraction.”
In South Carolina, making any changes to Civil War symbols requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the state legislature, and while lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a debate later this summer, few wanted to risky ugly words during a week of funerals for the people killed in the church attack.
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The slaying of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other black people who welcomed a gunman into their Bible study session at one of the nation’s oldest churches has become has become a catalyst for re-examining the meaning of Civil War symbols.
Pinckney’s open coffin will be on display in the Statehouse Rotunda for four hours Wednesday. Senators gathered by his desk, draped in black, and signed up for 30-minute shifts beside his body so he wouldn’t be alone.
Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley’s call the day before to move the flag to a museum, House lawmakers approved a measure to hold a debate by a vote of 103-10, and the Senate promptly endorsed it with a voice vote. Several bills related to removing the flag were then introduced, although debate could be weeks away.
South Carolina’s action spurred other politicians around the nation to call for removing historic but divisive Civil War-era symbols from places of honor, from state flags to license plates to statues and place names. Many said change is imperative after the white man accused of shooting of nine black churchgoers posed with the flag.
Even the Citadel, South Carolina influential military college, whose cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War, voted in favor of moving its Confederate Naval Jack flag from its prominent place inside its main chapel to a more “appropriate” campus location.
As with any other historic symbol in the state, even that move will require state lawmakers to amend the same Heritage Act that has kept the Confederate battle flag flying high outside the statehouse, even as U.S. and state flags were lowered to half-staff.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag. In Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from the Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag to be replaced.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Kentucky’s Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, in calling for the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from their state Capitol’s rotunda.
Big businesses also took action: Wal-Mart, e-Bay and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, which e-Bay called a “contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”
Civil rights activist Kevin Gray said it’s time to stop using the word “victims” to describe the nine people slain inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. They are martyrs, he said, and if Confederate symbols come down around the South, their deaths will not have been in vain.
Republican Rep. Jonathon Hill, a freshman, said the flag is history and rightly flies over a monument dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers. He also said dealing with the issue so soon was disrespectful to the victims’ families.
“You’re going to defeat racism with love and forgiveness. You’re not going to defeat it with politics and certainly not with more hatred,” said Hill, R-Townville. “Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it’s a very divisive issue,” he said, referring to the suspect in the shooting. “I think it could very well get ugly.”
Roof, who faces murder and gun charges in the church attack, had posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags. A friend of his told The Associated Press that Roof had talked of planning to do something “for the white race.”
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and lawmakers decided to keep it there in 1962 in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument out front in 2000.
A second viewing of Pinckney will take place Thursday morning at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in his Senate district, and Thursday night at Emanuel AME where he was pastor, and where he was slain. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston.
Drew reported from Charleston, South Carolina. Associated Press writer Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.