South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will hold a bill signing ceremony at 4 p.m. ET to finalize legislation that will remove the confederate flag from statehouse grounds once and for all. The flag will come down Friday morning at 10 a.m. ET.
“I’m still not quite sure I’ve fully absorbed it, it’s almost like shock,” State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter told msnbc. “It is something that was way past due and will allow South Carolina to turn the page.”
For seven years, Cobb-Hunter kept a small American flag on her desk in the South Carolina House gallery, so that she could pledge allegiance. “I just refused to look up at that Speakers podium and recite the pledge,” she said, since behind it stood a massive display featuring a Confederate battle flag.
Cobb-Hunter vowed then that the flag would one day be gone. And in the wee hours of July 9, she helped strike the deal that will finally see it removed from its current perch: a flagpole beside the enormous Civil War monument outside the Capitol building, where it was moved following a 2000 legislative compromise that drew six black Senators, to the ire of Cobb-Hunter, then the House minority leader, and other African-American leaders in the state.
Among those black leaders was Rev. Nelson Rivers III, then the executive director of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, who says then-State Sen. Glenn McConnell, one of the many white South Carolinians who prize the battle flag as a symbol of their family heritage, told him at the time: “that flag is never, ever coming down off that Capitol dome. Never, ever.”
“Well I told him then, I’m from the Land of Never,” said Rivers, now the national vice president of religious and external affairs at the National Action Network. “Your people told me I’d never go to college, never eat in your restaurants, never sit beside you on the bus, never work beside you and never vote. So ‘never’ don’t mean a thing to me.”
The NAACP launched a boycott of the state that year that continues today.
Fifteen years later, the massacre of nine African-Americans during Bible study at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, including the church’s pastor, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, and Cynthia Hurd, a librarian at the College of Charleston, where McConnell is now the president, caused a seismic shift in the politics of the flag. Suddenly, everyone from Republican Gov. Haley, to both U.S. Senators from South Carolina to McConnell himself, reversed their positions and supported furling the emblem that has become a symbol of the Charleston shooter, and which has long been a symbol of white supremacy and menace for African-Americans throughout the South.
A filibuster by Amendment
Still, what many had believed would be a swift action in the state House after the Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday turned into a 14-hour marathon, as Republicans proposed a barrage of amendments and obstruction that threatened to derail the bill.
It was a filibuster in all but name, led by State Rep. Michael A. Pitts, who proposed a breathtaking 55 amendments, just a handful with co-sponsors, calling for everything from the removal of all statues and monuments from the grounds, to substitute civil war era flags on the flagpole where the battle flag now stands, to an amendment calling for the planting of yellow jasmine, South Carolina’s state flower, in the current flagpole’s place. The last Pitts amendment was voted down well after midnight.
Republicans arguing in support of Pitts’ amendments called on the minority to offer “grace” and understanding to those who cherish the battle flag as part of their southern heritage, saying the emblem had been “abducted” by hate groups and by the Charleston shooter. Pitts himself denied that his goal was to kill the Senate bill, despite warnings from the upper chamber that any amended bill would be dead on arrival, and go automatically to a conference committee which could drag out the process for weeks.“I am in favor of pulling that flag down if it hurts the heart of people who look like you,” said Pitts, directly addressing an African-American reporter. “But I want my heritage respected, too.”
Heritage was the theme of most of the Republican speeches over the course of the day, with Pitts telling lengthy stories about his family history, and adding: “people make fun of the heritage issue, but it’s very personal to me.”
For their part, Democrats argued that the chamber owed a debt to the memories and families of those killed in the Charleston massacre, including their colleague Sen. Pinckney, to see that the flag is removed immediately.
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart to do something meaningful like take a symbol of hate off these grounds by Friday,” an emotional Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne thundered late in the afternoon Wednesday, adding that leaving the flag flying “would be adding insult to injury to Sen. Pinckney’s widow and all of the families, and I will not be a part of it! We would be telling the people of Charleston that we don’t care about you. We don’t care that somebody used a symbol of hate to slay nine people as they worshipped their God.”
“I’ve heard quite enough about ‘heritage,’” the Republican added. “I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, OK? But the world is watching us, and we need to do this, today. Because this issue is not getting better with age.”
During an afternoon recess, Gov. Nikki Haley met with the GOP caucus, in what House aides said was an emotional presentation in which she reminded the members that she herself is a former legislator, whose district was teeming with Confederate flag supporters, but that the Charleston massacre had changed the equation for the state. The meeting failed to move Pitts and the other members, who continued proposing amendments well into the night, though each was voted down overwhelmingly.
By 10 p.m., Republicans had finally found an amendment that attracted significant support. Authored by Rep. Rick Quinn, the amendment called for additional funding for the Confederate Relic Room, a small, state-run museum where the battle flag would be housed under the Senate bill. After repeated votes on the Quinn amendment, Democrats, led by Cobb-Hunter, crafted a parliamentary maneuver of their own: Rep. Harry L. Ott Jr. introduced the measure, which would enshrine the Quinn language in its own, separate resolution, allowing for the Senate bill to pass without amendments. But Democrats struggled to find the three final votes needed to pass the Ott resolution, prompting several members to rise in disgust.
“You want people to bow and genuflect,” an exasperated Cobb-Hunter told her Republican colleagues who throughout the day and night called for opponents of the flag to give them something to take back to their constituents in return for removal. “If you’re not trying to stall, then what’s the problem?”
“Let’s get real here,” she snapped. “If you don’t want the bill let’s skip all the delaying. Why don’t we just move to a vote up or down on the bill, and you all can go on and spin it in the way you want to spin it. You’ve got all this national press here. You can practice on them. You’re gonna need to be able to explain how you snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.”
“I have watched my colleagues all day refuse to call the civil war the civil war,” said Rep. Caesar McKnight, adding that the flag flying outside the state house is nothing to be proud of, but rather is “shameful and divisive.”McKnight pointed out that as an Army veteran, he saluted the American flag daily. “You cannot serve two masters,” he said. “You cannot pay homage to two flags.”
“I am truly, truly embarrassed to call South Carolina home,” said Rep. John King, as a deal to vote on both the Ott resolution and a clean bill appeared to fall apart. “I am embarrassed that my colleagues have chosen to forget the nine lives lost on June 17, including our dear colleague Sen. Clementa Pinckney. It is truly a sad day in South Carolina.”
Eventually, however, behind-the-scenes negotiations produced a deal that allowed Republicans to support a clean bill, in exchange for Quinn withdrawing his amendment and assuming primary sponsorship of Ott’s resolution. The parliamentary maneuver allowed the Republican members to save face, and the bill passed its second reading at just after 1:00 in the morning on Thursday, by an overwhelming vote of 93-7, and the third reading by a vote of 94-20.
Afterward, the exhausted Democratic caucus gathered for a victorious press conference, led by minority leader Todd Rutherford, who said what was on the minds of those assembled in that moment was Pinckney’s memory: the sadness they felt at victory having come at the cost of his and eight other lives, and the joy and relief at seeing the flag finally removed.
“We stand here grateful to a governor who exercised tremendous leadership on this issue; two United States Senators who exercised great leadership on this issue, and our entire congressional delegation,” Rutherford said. “We stand here tonight proud of South Carolina.”
Gov. Haley issued a statement calling it “a new day in South Carolina, 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.”
As the Democratic caucus was talking to the media, Cobb-Hunter was not with them. She had remained behind in the House chamber to watch the Speaker sign the bill. Afterward, she and the speaker, Republican Bobby Harrell, embraced.
The end had been a long time coming.