After years of resisting calls to remove the Confederate flag flying over the grounds of the state capitol, South Carolina politicians are reconsidering, prompted by the massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to consider removing the Confederate flag from their Statehouse grounds and other politicians took aim at Civil War-era symbols across the South, saying change is imperative after police said nine black churchgoers were slain in a hate crime.
Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley’s call the day before to move the flag to a museum, lawmakers approved a measure enabling a flag debate by a vote of 103-10 in the House and a voice vote in the Senate.
The House vote brought a standing ovation and rounds of applause after Democratic and Republican leaders jointly sponsored the measure in a show of uncharacteristic unity. Very few lawmakers rose to say the flag should stay; some said they were saving speeches for what promises to be an emotional debate later this summer.
Lawmakers then prayed for state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who joined the legislature in 1997 and who, as pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, was among the dead.
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“I ask that in the memory of Mr. Pinckney that we are generous in spirit, gracious in our conversation and please — even if we disagree, let’s agree to disagree agreeably,” Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter urged her colleagues. “Those nine families have shown us how to do it. I would strongly suggest we take a cue from them.”
Dylann Storm 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, and told a friend that he was planning to do something “for the white race.”
Haley’s call to put the Confederate flag in a museum was quickly seconded by leading Republicans including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, giving others a political opening to announce their moves. Many cited the church slayings as they abandoned the long-held position that even debating the status of the flag would be too racially divisive today.
“Last week’s terrorizing act of violence shook the very core of every South Carolinian,” South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas said in support of the measure.
And once South Carolina took action, other states moved quickly.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag. Both Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee 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 replaced. 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 Stores Inc., Amazon.com Inc., EBay Inc., Target Corp. and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag. And the Valley Forge Flag Co., which has sent flags into battle and to the moon, said it won’t make them anymore.
“When you have a sea change moment like you have with the tragedy in Charleston, we felt it was simply the right thing to do,” Valley Forge Vice President Reggie VandenBosch said. “We don’t want to do anything that causes pain or disunity for people.”
The first South Carolina senator to take the floor and call for moving the flag to a museum was the son of the state’s most powerful politician of the last century, U.S. senator and segregationist standard-bearer Strom Thurmond, whose statue stands on the side of the Statehouse opposite the Confederate flag, striding confidently southward.
State Sen. Paul Thurmond said the church attack compels flag supporters to reconsider. The Charleston Republican said he loves his ancestors, but isn’t proud of a heritage that included holding people in bondage, and wants to send a strong message to anyone contemplating a hate crime.
“I can respond with love, unity and kindness,” Thurmond said, “and maybe show others that the motivations for a future attack of hate will not be tolerated, will not result in a race war, will not divide us, but rather strengthen our resolve to come together.”
Outside in the sweltering heat, where hundreds chanted “bring it down, bring it down,” civil rights activist Kevin Gray said it’s time to stop using the word “victims” to describe the people slain — they are martrys, he said, and if Confederate symbols come down around the South, their deaths will not have been in vain.
There were a handful of dissenting voices in the crowd that gathered next to the Confederate monument where the flag flies atop a 30-foot pole in front of the Statehouse, in full view of the U.S. and state flags flying at half-staff.
“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, who like Roof is from Eastover.
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 in 1962 to keep it there in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, a smaller, square version was moved to the flagpole out front in 2000.
Some lawmakers insisted that this week is still not the right time for this public debate.
Pinckney’s coffin will be on display in the Statehouse Rotunda on Wednesday, then return to his church for a viewing on Thursday. On Friday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver Pinckney’s eulogy at a Charleston sports arena.
Najee Washington, granddaughter of victim Ethel Lance, said swift action on the flag would mean a lot to her family.
“That would be great,” she said. “It’s just a part of the past that we don’t need to be reminded of every day.”
Contributors include Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia and Michael R. Sisak in Philadelphia. Drew reported from Charleston, South Carolina.
This story has been corrected to show that Obama will deliver eulogy Friday in a Charleston sports arena, not the Emanuel church.