After the Charleston massacre, calls, petitions, letters and social media led to the collapse in support for the 150-year-old symbol of the South.
Inside the State House in South Carolina, one day after the massacre in a Charleston church, an African-American receptionist politely gave everyone who called to complain about the Confederate battle flag the same response: “Sorry, there’s nothing to be done.”
But Karen Hunter, one of those callers, would not let it go. “If we all had that attitude,” Hunter told her, “we’d still be slaves.” Within hours, Hunter drafted an online petition that demanded the flag’s removal from the State House grounds. It would be signed by more than 566,000 people.
At the nearby Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Lewis Gossett Jr., president of a powerful South Carolina business group, felt his emotions swell as black and white parishioners locked hands and mourned the nine African Americans who were killed in Charleston on June 17. The next morning, he emailed his executive committee: It was time for their organization to lead a charge to take down the Confederate flag. “I think it could happen very fast.”
Fifty miles east, state Rep. Grady Brown, a Democrat and a great-grandson of a Confederate soldier, sorted through 1,000 messages, the largest volume he had received since joining the General Assembly. People poured out their souls on “page after page after page,” he said. The vast majority asked him to remove the flag.
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The stunningly quick collapse of support for the Confederate battle flag has been told largely through the public pronouncements of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. But behind the scenes, powerful forces — capitalism, Christianity, social media, businesses and a Republican Party eager to extricate itself from the past — were converging. Within five days, decades of resistance in South Carolina fell away.
Some of it was a result of simple demographics, as the aging white leaders with the deepest attachment to the banner found themselves wielding less sway among modern bases of power. The Legislature is increasingly drawn from a younger generation, whose politics were forged well after the battle against civil rights.
On social media, prominent black thinkers shaped and dominated a conversation about why the flag must go, setting off a river of retweets and reverberations, while flag supporters trying to counter the argument were shouted down.
And, in the country’s most churchgoing region, Christianity played a potent role. White worshippers described themselves as pained by guilt and moved after watching relatives of the Charleston victims deliver an unexpected message of forgiveness.
The consensus among the state’s establishment to remove the flag came about, many civic leaders said, also because of what did not happen: There was no violent reaction, which made the old antagonisms harder to summon. No swarms of outsiders flooded the State House. Instead, the small state seemed proud of their comportment, and eager to atone for the hurt. A few days after the Charleston killings, there seemed to be almost no one willing to speak up for the flag.
As demands for its removal multiplied, Paul Finebaum, host of a sports radio show with a loyal following in the Deep South, braced for a torrent of angry callers. This time, the calls never came.
With dizzying speed, opponents of the flag blanketed social media. The kind of mass demonstration that, in the past, might have taken a week to organize in front of the State House had coalesced online in several hours, drowning out the flag’s supporters.
Efforts to calm the uproar came in for mockery. On the morning after the killings, Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley Jr., declared that the shooter “does not define” the city or South Carolina, prompting Tom Adelsbach to log on to Twitter and fire off a message.
“This flag flies over the SC statehouse, so it kinda does,” he wrote, posting a photograph of the Confederate banner on the grounds of the Capitol. His message, retweeted more than 5,000 times, was one of the earliest online posts on the topic to go viral.
On Twitter, the debate was not even close. About 77 percent of those mentioning the issue favored the flag’s removal, 20 percent expressed neutrality and 3 percent defended its place on the State House grounds, according to Two.42 solutions, a company that analyzes data and opinion.
Online outpourings after a tragedy are now familiar, but what was different was the role of an influential group of black voices, energized by a series of African Americans who died at the hands of the police and loosely organized under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.”
By the day after the massacre, people in the governor’s office were taking notice. Around noon, Hunter, a radio host whose once-obscure show on Sirius XM Radio has been transformed by her outspokenness about white police officers’ killing young black men, posted her petition online. Within a day, its host, Moveon.org, a liberal advocacy group, told her that it was receiving 5,000 signatures an hour. “I was floored,” Hunter said.
South Carolina’s corporate titans have long held had a simple view of the Confederate flag: It was terrible for business. Under Haley, a Republican, the state had devoted itself to luring major companies like Mercedes-Benz and Boeing through big tax incentives and relentless recruitment from the governor herself. In many ways, the campaign was a success. But the flag, and everything it stood for, always endangered that progress, leading to repeated calls from business groups for its removal.
They were tired of explaining why a symbol of the American Confederacy lingered at the capitol of a state that wanted to lure workers. To many of them, it was a source of embarrassment that the NCAA would not pick South Carolina to host championship events because of the flag, and in the college-sports-crazy state, coaches said that it was an obstacle to recruiting.
After the killings in Charleston, the business leaders saw their chance. The chairman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, Mikee Johnson, polled his 56 board members about the future of the flag. Everyone who responded was of the same opinion. He called Haley and told her: If she was ready to bring down the Confederate banner, they were behind her.
On the first Saturday after the massacre, shocking images appeared of suspect Dylann Roof with the flag, rattling the governor’s office and linking the symbol to the tragedy in a way that she could not easily ignore.
She had held back a swelling tide of emotion for several days, but it was clear that if nothing happened, boycotts and other ugliness could follow. Even the chairman of the Republican National Committee was preparing to issue a statement against the flag, potentially isolating Haley and the state’s other Republican leaders.
At 4 p.m. on Monday, the governor took the podium. “A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come,” Haley said, handing the task off to the Legislature, which must decide the flag’s fate.
The room erupted into applause. The crowd seemed ready to give up the fight.