From Mississippi to Minnesota, demands grow to get rid of flags and statues and even to change names of streets and parks.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — What began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state Capitol intensified with striking speed and scope Tuesday into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, parks and stores.
The South Carolina Legislature, less than week after nine parishioners were shot to death in a black church in Charleston, voted Tuesday to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds.
In Charleston, the board that governs the Citadel, the state’s 173-year-old military academy, voted 9-3, to remove the Confederate Naval Jack from the campus chapel, saying that a Citadel graduate and the relatives of six employees were killed in the attack on the church.
In Tennessee, political leaders from both parties said a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and an early Ku Klux Klan leader, should be moved out of the Statehouse.
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In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the Confederate flag no longer appear on license plates, and leaders in Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee vowed to do the same.
And in Mississippi, the state’s House speaker, Philip Gunn, a Republican, called for taking a Confederate battle cross off the upper corner of his state’s flag, the only remaining state banner to display the emblem.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said in a statement that stunned many in Jackson, the capital, and was seen as adding a highly fraught issue with statewide elections there this year. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed,” Gunn said.
For decades, images of the Confederacy have been opposed by people who viewed them as painful symbols of slavery, racism and white dominance, and supported by those who saw them as historical emblems from the Civil War, reminders of generations-long Southern pride.
Yet the new calls, after the church massacre last week, came with surprising force and swiftness. The demands straddled lines of partisanship and race, drawing support even from Southern conservatives who for years had defended public displays of the flag as a matter of regional pride. The movement also reached far beyond the political sphere, and beyond the South itself.
In Minnesota, activists demanded that a lake named after John C. Calhoun, a senator and vice president from South Carolina who was a proponent of slavery, be renamed. And messages were painted on Confederate statues in Charleston, Baltimore and Austin, Texas, that read: “Black Lives Matter.”
“To see all of this happening, all of a sudden, it speaks of some fundamental change in the country,” said Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. “It is surprising in the sense that there have been calls for this for years. But it took this tragedy to spur this type of change.”
Dylann Roof, 21, the white man from South Carolina accused of the shootings during a Bible study last Wednesday inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had espoused a white-supremacist philosophy, his friends said, posing for photos with the Confederate battle flag. The massacre combined with those images of Roof helped set off the nationwide re-examination of Confederate symbols.
On Tuesday, the vote in the South Carolina Legislature was procedural, only allowing lawmakers to consider a bill, not yet introduced, in the coming weeks. But in a Legislature that had previously resisted passionate calls to remove the flag, its passage by huge margins was a watershed.
Senator after senator invoked the memory of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and state senator killed in the church. His Senate desk was draped in black cloth, a single white rose atop it.
The motion to consider a bill on the flag carried by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate, though one senator, Lee Bright, a Republican, said he would vote against removing the flag. In the House, the vote to take up the flag issue was 103-10.
“Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said state Sen. Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag. “I am not proud of this heritage,” said Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948.
Yet as proposals emerged to remove Confederate imagery in state after state, members of Confederate veterans organizations voiced concern about the flood of demands and said they felt misunderstood. The Confederate statues, the battle flag, even the naming of streets was a matter of remembering family members who had fought in the Civil War, they said.
“This is a feeding frenzy of cultural cleansing,” said Ben Jones, the chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group. “It’s an hysteria — we just want to fly this flag for family, for grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”
The commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans added that the vandalism scares him. “Is someone going to be attacked because they have an S.C.V. sticker on their car? We’re open targets, battle flag or not,” Kelly Barrow said.
Some opponents of removing all Confederate symbols from public places also tried to draw a distinction between flying the battle flag at a capitol, and displaying a statue or naming a park to commemorate individual soldiers.
“People are calling for removing monuments and boulevard names in the name of racial sensitivity? Where does this end?” said Jones, who was a member of the U.S. House and an actor on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show. “This is just dividing people like crazy.”
Efforts to remove images came from both parties, and some Republicans were among the most outspoken, including Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and lawmakers of both parties called for removing a Capitol grounds bust of General Forrest. The longest-serving black legislator in Alabama said he plans to introduce a resolution that would remove the Confederate flags that fly outside the Alabama Capitol next to a towering monument to Confederate soldiers.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said the city should consider changes to several monuments, including a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee near downtown, as the city prepares to celebrate its 300th anniversary.
The president of the Kentucky Senate, Robert Stivers, a Republican, said in light of the Charleston killings, he believed that a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a native Kentuckian, should be removed from the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. The statue is near a larger one of Abraham Lincoln, a proximity that made him uncomfortable, he said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, also suggested that the Jefferson Davis statue should be moved.
“I think it’s appropriate, certainly in Kentucky, to be talking about the appropriateness of continuing to have Jefferson Davis’s statue in a very prominent place in our state capital,” he said. “Maybe a better place for that would be the Kentucky History Museum, which is also in the state capital.”