Lawmakers in both parties said that despite public frustration and anger, a provision of state law prevents officials from lowering the Confederate flag to half-staff.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Stunned by the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, South Carolina has been forced to confront an issue that has bedeviled it for decades: the Confederate battle flag that flies above the grounds of the State House.
The tension was on display Friday. While the U.S. and South Carolina flags flew at half-staff, the Confederate battle flag remained at the peak of its pole outside the State House, and the NAACP renewed its demand that the Civil War standard be permanently removed.
“That symbol has to come down,” Cornell William Brooks, national president of the NAACP, said at a news conference in Charleston, calling it an emblem of hate. “That symbol must be removed from our state capital.”
Lawmakers in both parties said that despite public frustration and anger, a provision of state law prevents officials from lowering the Confederate flag to half-staff. The anger unspooled on social media, where pictures of the flag were repeatedly posted and denounced. Some lawmakers said the public discussion could lead to a reconsideration of the flag’s placement.
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“I think it’s a conversation that we’re going to have,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican who represents Beaufort County in the Legislature. But he added: “Nothing is going to happen simply within the walls of that chamber without the people making their voice heard. There’s a sense in the institution itself that this issue was resolved.”
For years, the flag flew above the State House dome. In 2000, state officials, pressured by a business boycott led by the NAACP and large protests in Columbia, decided that only the U.S. and South Carolina flags would fly above the State House, while the Confederate battle flag would be placed in front of the building.
This week, after the killings of nine people at a Bible study class at the Emanuel church, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the U.S. and South Carolina flags lowered for nine days — one day for each victim — but could do nothing about the height of the Confederate standard.
South Carolina law gives only the Legislature power to make changes to the Confederate battle-flag display, and they must be approved by supermajorities in the House and the Senate.
After years of being thwarted, opponents of flying the Confederate battle flag said this time there may be enough public outcry to compel legislative action.
“I think that what we’ve seen in South Carolina is another act of terrorism, and this act of terrorism reminds us of a history of terrorism enacted against African-American people, particularly in the South,” said Russell Moore, a descendant of Confederate veterans who heads the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I do think the flag will come down.”
But as Moore expressed confidence and lawmakers discussed plans to file legislation seeking to remove the flag from the State House’s grounds, many others cautioned that any shift in policy faced difficult odds in the Legislature.
“It’s a total lose-lose issue,” said David Woodard, a political-science professor at Clemson University and a longtime Republican consultant. “You’re not going to make any friends by doing it, so you just leave it be.”
He added: “There’s no politician who’s powerful enough to take it on.”
That included, he said, Haley, who told CBS on Friday that she expected a new round of debate in Columbia, the capital. “I think that conversation will probably come back up again,” the governor said.
Supporters of the Confederate battle flag signaled Friday that their position had not changed. In a commentary Friday, Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group, said the flag should remain at the State House but the American flag should be removed.
The American flag, Hill wrote, “now stands for multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity — the left’s unholy trinity.” In “sharp contrast,” he wrote, the Confederate battle flag “stands for the heroic effort our people made 150 years ago to avoid the fate” of contemporary America.
Other supporters of the flag said they view the two issues — the mass shooting and the flag — as unrelated. Don Coleman, a spokesman for the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the attack had more to do with “one very troubled young man” than the flag.