COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Chanting “bring it down, bring it down,” hundreds gathered in Tuesday’s sweltering heat demanding the removal of the Confederate battle flag from outside South Carolina’s Statehouse.
Inside, lawmakers convening to vote on a budget instead found themselves pressured by their governor to take a stand on the historic but divisive symbol.
A shouting match soon broke out at the base of the Confederate monument where the rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole, in full view of the U.S. and state flags that were lowered to half-staff to honor the nine black church members slain last week, in what authorities describe as a racial hate crime.
“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, of Eastover, one of a handful of flag supporters in the crowd of hundreds.
Tom Clements knows this heritage – he brought a poster displaying details and photos about his great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy, and three great-great uncles who died for the South. He said he loved the Confederate flag growing up, but now sees it as a symbol of oppression.
“The racists took over the memories of the Confederacy,” said Clements, who joined the chants of “bring it down.”
Dozens of officers from different police agencies kept watch but did not intervene. More were positioned inside the Statehouse, where Gov. Nikki Haley, in a stunning reversal of the position lawmakers had held to for 15 years, said Monday that the flag should be removed and put in a museum.
“The governor and members of the leadership of South Carolina made a great step forward by indicating that the flag should come down,” said Malcolm Graham, a former North Carolina state senator and the brother of shooting victim Cynthia Hurd. “Whether it comes down today, tomorrow or next week, it’s important that there’s one flag that all citizens of South Carolina are governed by.”
Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers under the terms of the 2000 deal that moved a square version of the flag to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front. Just adding the flag to the agenda of a special session to approve the budget also requires two-thirds approval.
State GOP Chairman Matt Moore said he believes both parties are committed to bringing it down.
“With enough political will anything can be done,” Moore said. “There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds.”
Haley’s announcement came only days after authorities announced murder charges against Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man who told a friend that he had a plan to do something “for the white race” and posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.
Leaders in other states swiftly followed suit: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, and in Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must be removed from the Senate.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday ordered the replacement of vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag, saying the banner is “hurtful” for too many people.
And Wal-Mart announced that it is removing any items from its store shelves and website that feature the Confederate flag.
Even if the Confederate flag still flies Wednesday when mourners file past the coffin of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney beneath the Statehouse dome, Graham said people will be focused on his legacy as a lawmaker and minister of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
“I think people will be focused on the memory of the senator and not the flag. This is his moment, and not the moment of a political issue,” Graham said.
Lawmakers could take up a resolution Tuesday allowing them to add the issue to their special session, but they are unlikely to begin debate until July, well after President Barack Obama delivers the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral Friday.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he believes it’s both impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic this week.
“I prefer us to not do that out of respect for the services that will be held,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument out front in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina since 2001.
For years, South Carolina lawmakers sought shelter in that bipartisan compromise, saying that renewing the debate would unnecessarily revive painful divisions. Nationally, politicians said it was up to the state to decide. But after Haley’s announcement Monday, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the call to remove it.
Haley did what a previous Republican governor found to be political suicide: She not only called for flag’s removal but pledged to call legislators back to Columbia if they don’t deal with it in the next few weeks.
“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it,” the governor said.
Nevertheless, she said, it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” and doesn’t belong in such a public space.
Drew reported from Charleston, South Carolina.
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