By Jane A. Kennedy
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – If Dylann Storm Roof had not massacred nine African-Americans who’d gathered for Bible study at Charleston’s historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church on July 17, the Confederate flag would no doubt still be flying on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol.
But weeks after Roof, a White man who has been photographed with the racist symbol, committed what has been charged as a hate crime, the flag was taken down on July 10 and is now permanently archived at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
The historic moment took place after weeks of protest and intense pressure on lawmakers that also sparked debates in other states where the flag is still revered as a symbol of the Civil War and Southern pride. It first flew above the South Carolina statehouse in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and stayed there as an official expression of opposition to the civil rights movement.
“It felt like a massive weight had been lifted off South Carolina,” said Gov. Nikki Haley on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We can truly say it’s a new day in South Carolina.”
But that day did not come easily.
A few days after Roof fatally shot the nine church members, Haley called for the flag’s removal from the capitol grounds, although she has in the past defended its presence. Taking it down, however, required a two-thirds majority vote in both the state’s House and Senate.
The bill passed easily in the upper chamber by 37-3, but faced stiff opposition in the House. In an attempt to block it, Republican representatives attached to it more than 60 amendments. They argued that the flag is an emblem through which they honor their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and has nothing to do with slavery or racism.
After hours of impassioned, sometimes bitter debate last Wednesday, Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a Republican and descendant of Jefferson Davis, said it was time to stop using heritage to justify something that to so many people represents hate. It was, Horne said, an insult to their late colleague, Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinkney, who was one of the nine people slain by Roof.
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful—such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday—and if any of you vote to amend, you are ensuring that this flag will fly beyond Friday,” said a visibly emotional Anderson Horne. “And for the widow of Sen. Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury—and I will not be a part of it.”’
Just before 1:00 a.m. on July 9, the House voted 94-20 to remove the flag. Haley proclaimed it “a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state.”
The next day, surrounded by relatives of the shooting victims and Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the governor signed the legislation using 13 pens, nine of which she gave to the families.
Thousands of people turned out to witness the removal, shouting, “Take it down! Take it down!” as the honor guard marched to the flag pole. After two troopers reeled down and folded the flag, and then handed it to a Black trooper who then passed it to a state archivist, the crowd shouted, “USA! USA!”
As South Carolina prepared to make history, the controversial flag became the cause of an equally heated and bitter debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives after Rep. Ken Clavert (R-Calif.) added a late-hour amendment Wednesday night to the Department of the Interior funding bill that would overturn a measure easily passed a few days earlier prohibiting the display and sale of Confederate symbols at national parks and cemeteries.
Democrats were outraged and delivered blistering indictments of Republicans’ defense of the flag and what they called a shady move made in the “dark of night.”
“What exactly is the tradition the Confederate battle flag is meant to represent? Is it slavery, rape, kidnapping, genocide, treason, or all of the above?” asked New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, who reminded his colleagues that if the Confederacy had prevailed, he would be a slave today instead of a congressman.
“When I was marching across that bridge in Selma in 1965, I saw some of the law officers, sheriff’s deputies, wearing on their helmet the Confederate flag,” recalled Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement. “I don’t want to go back, and as a country we cannot go back.”
House speaker John Boehner, who says he does not support Confederate symbols at federal cemeteries, had allowed the amendment to prevent a revolt by his caucus’ far-right wing on the Interior appropriations bill. He clearly didn’t anticipate how powerful and scathing the Democrats’ wrath would be and in the end pulled the entire bill. Boehner later called for “bipartisan conversations” about how to handle the thorny issue, but Democrats balked at the notion.
“What is it you have to study?” asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Do we have to study hatred in its manifestations in the Confederate flag?”
“The time for talking and having a conversation is over, and I think it’s time for action,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
Since the Emmanuel Church shootings, several states have taken action to remove the flag and other Confederate symbols and monuments or they are considering it.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags removed from a monument on the State Capitol grounds. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal stopped the use of specialty license plates that featured the Confederate flag as did Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. And some lawmakers in Mississippi are calling for the state’s flag, which features the Confederate stars and bars, to be changed. Still, large swaths of people continue to support the Confederacy and the flag and other symbols are littered throughout the South.
In response to its removal in South Carolina, the NAACP passed a resolution lifting its 15-year economic boycott of the state. In addition, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will now allow the state to host championship-level college sports events.
Like Haley, President Obama and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus declared a new beginning for the state whose residents are still grieving after the July 17 massacre.
“South Carolina taking down the confederate flag – a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future,” tweeted Obama.
Priebus seconded the sentiment. He wrote, “Taking down this #ConfederateFlag moves us toward being a country that stands more united, not divided.”
Civil rights leaders applauded the move as the beginning of a new era. South Carolina-born Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the most notable celebrants.
“After 150 years, at 10am today, July 10, 2015, my original home state of South Carolina took down the Confederate Battle Flag, a symbol of the sin of slavery, secession, sedition, segregation, separation, white supremacy and the irregular use of states’ rights,” Jackson said in a statement.
He noted a new opportunity to replace yet another Confederate symbol: “Symbols represent both ideology and substance. The flying of the Confederate Battle Flag represented both and so does Charleston’s ‘Calhoun Street.’ In the middle of the 18th century during the great senate slavery debates involving Massachusetts Daniel Webster, in opposition to slavery, and South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, the most articulate defender of the private ownership of slaves in the name of states’ rights – with the Great Compromiser Henry Clay in the middle of the debates – Senator John Calhoun represents much the same as the Confederate Battle Flag. Therefore, Calhoun Street should be renamed ‘The Emanuel 9 Way.’”