The true story of the South Carolina Confederate flag debate

Updated

In the wake of the removal of the Confederate Battle flag (and the pole it flew on) from a place of honor on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, much of the media has been quick to paint one lawmaker as the hero. That narrative is both simplistic and wrong.

The long-belated furling of the Confederate battle flag on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds gripped the nation last week, due both to its tragic linkage to the massacre inside Mother Emanuel church in Charleston on June 17, and the 15-hour dramatic legislative debate that played out inside the state’s House of Representatives on July 8 that led to the flag’s removal. That debate was punctuated by a dramatic speech by South Carolina State Rep. Jenny Horne, a petite blonde Republican who happens to be a descendant of the Confederate States of America’s would-be president, Jefferson Davis.

RELATED: South Carolina votes to remove Confederate flag

Horne became an instant sensation after video of her impassioned speech in support of a State Senate-passed bill to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds went viral.

She’d scolded her caucus for lacking the “heart” to respond to the massacre of those nine African-Americans churchgoers killed during a Bible study, by furling the flag brandished online by the accused killer. The admonishment to her fellow caucus members came after hours of speechifying about “heritage” and the family lore of individual southern gallantry they believe is tied to that flag; and claims by several Republican representatives – including Michael A. Pitts, who introduced most of the more than 60 doomed amendments that stalled the vote for nearly 15 hours – that the battle flag and its true meaning had simply been “abducted” by hate groups.

“I have heard enough about heritage,” Horne thundered as the debate wore on into the night. “Well I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, OK? But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s not about Jenny Horne!”

And yet, as the bill to remove the flag – seen by many as a symbol of hate – finally passed in the wee hours of Thursday morning, it was indeed becoming about Jenny Horne. She was whisked in front of television cameras (including MSNBC’s) and treated as a conquering heroine. Her speech was credited with shaming her fellow partisans into supporting a clean bill.

Except that it didn’t really happen that way. 

Horne’s epic rant came at just after 8:30 p.m., in the 10th hour of debate on the flag bill, a point at which the Democratic caucus was still falling three votes shy of passing the Senate version without amendments, and sending it to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk. The Senate, which passed its bill with the last of three required ballots on Tuesday, encoded in its legislation a clause saying any amendments to the bill would cause it to be rejected automatically. Most of the senators had already left the Capitol and appointed their conference committee members just in case, with no plans to return until the day the flag was to come down, presumably on Friday. Democratic senators, including Vincent Sheheen, the bill’s Senate sponsor, and Sen. Marlon Kimson, explained in no uncertain terms that a conference committee likely meant a severe delay and likely the death of the bill. Friday was a very real deadline to see the flag removed.

But a handful of Republicans in the House were determined to amend the bill at all costs. They were led by Rep. Pitts, who threw a barrage of amendments onto the floor, calling for everything from the removal of all monuments from the Statehouse grounds, to flying the U.S. flag upside down on the Capitol dome. A handful of fellow Republicans joined him, creating a spectacle that ultimately attracted national attention on cable news and C-SPAN, along with intense activity on social media.

‘Some of us need a little help in our districts’

Over the course of the day and night, Pitts introduced 54 amendments, at one point withdrawing 27 of them only to introduce two dozen more. The House speaker, Rep. Jay Lucas, declined to call for a cloture vote to end what Minority Leader Todd Rutherford labeled a “filibuster by amendment.” Rutherford and the Democrats had decided from the start not to try and push for such a vote, which would have required a two-thirds majority and forced Republicans to turn on one of their own. Instead, they opted to let the Republicans offer their amendments and make their arguments, believing that in the end, with the world watching, they wouldn’t dare prevent that flag from coming down.

The GOP holds a 77-46 majorly in the 124-member House (one seat remains vacant), and most members hail from districts where a plurality of white residents supported flying the confederate flag beside the monument to the state’s Civil War dead. As Rutherford said the morning before the vote, “(Pitts) has a right to speak and introduce his amendments, and we’re not going to stand in the way.”

But as the day turned to evening, tensions inside the chamber grew, as each time the chair came to the end of Pitts’ amendments, he placed several more on the docket. Other Republican members joined in, seeming to fish for one amendment – any amendment – that would attract enough support to be attached to the bill.

By 6:30 p.m., the chamber was engaged in an extended debate over a Pitts amendment that would remove the battle flag and substitute a different Civil War-era regimental banner. That measure attracted significant support, prompting several members to plead with their colleagues to sign on, and to raise doubts about whether the Senate would truly reject an amended bill.

“Some of us need a little help in our districts,” one representative admitted to the body as he took to the floor in support of the substitute flag amendment. “That flag needs to come down, but we’ve got to have a little something to take back home, too.”

By 8:30 p.m., Horne had heard enough, and her epic moment of tearful pain and exasperation, in which she declared that “the world is watching, and this issue is not getting with age,” grabbed the attention of the world. But if her speech indeed shocked and shamed her caucus, it wasn’t what ultimately broke the logjam.

By 8:50 p.m., an amendment by Republican Rick Quinn was gaining traction, and the Democrats’ political director, Tyler Jones, was beginning to worry that it might pass. The amendment called for increased funding for the Confederate Relic Room, a museum within the state museum in Columbia, which houses items donated by the widows and descendants of South Carolina fighters in the Civil War, and their sons, who took up arms in the Spanish-American war. It seemed innocuous enough, and when a vote to table the amendment failed 60-60, die-hard flag supporters sensed an opportunity. They reintroduced the amendment and began a passionate argument in favor of its passage, imploring the other side to emulate the families of those slain inside Mother Emanuel by “showing a little grace” to those whose family lineage is tied to the flag.

With no end in sight, Democrats, led by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the no-nonsense longtime African-American lawmaker who calls herself “just a social worker out here trying to do good,” had come up with a deft compromise. Democrats would introduce a standalone House resolution incorporating Quinn’s amendment language.

The resolution was introduced by Rep. Russell L. Ott, a white Democrat and son of a former House minority leader. The caucus chose Ott in part because they realized that a measure fronted by Cobb-Hunter, who was the democratic leader in 2000, when she fought tooth and nail to stop the compromise that moved the flag from atop the Capitol dome to its “in your face” placement just off the sidewalk in front of the statehouse, rather than ridding the Capitol of it altogether, would be a nonstarter.

But Ott’s bill could not garner enough support to pass, either.

“Make no mistake,” Jones, who also serves as the House Democrats’ spokesman, tweeted at 9:14 p.m. “Democrats just gave Republicans everything they wanted. And they voted against it.”

‘Let me tell you about my heritage’

As the reality that the compromise might fail and Quinn’s amendment might pass set in, the mostly African-American Democratic caucus was finally shorn of its patience. They had largely remained in their seats during the nearly 12-hour debate. But now, one by one, the members rose to denounce the demands for quiet supplication and “grace” toward those who lionize the slave-owners’ Confederate republic; from those who had endured the menacing presence and hateful message of that flag from the 1930s, when it stood behind the speaker’s desk; to the 1960s, when it was unfurled atop the Capitol dome to send a message to Washington that the South would not quietly submit to integration; to its placement near the sidewalk in front of the Statehouse, fully viewable from the interior rotunda, such that black drapes had to be drawn in the large picture window (across from a bronze statue of violent slave-holder John C. Calhoun) to prevent it from framing the casket of fallen African-American state Senator Clementa Pinckney as his body lay in state at the Capitol just two weeks before. Pinckney was among the victims of the church massacre.

“I sat and I listened, all day long with great interest, and empathy, for what was said,” said Rep. Joseph Neal, a black elder statesman of the caucus, and a close friend of Pinckney’s, who, like the murdered senator, is also a pastor. “I understand you loving and supporting your ‘heritage.’ But ‘grace’ means that you ought to also love and support mine. It’s not a one-way street. My heritage is based on a group of people who were brought here in chains. Who were denigrated. Demagogued. Lynched and killed. Denied the right to vote. Denied the right to even have a family.”

“That flag that stands outside has stood as a thumb in the eye of those families in Charleston who lost loved ones, and we all know it,” said Neal. “And the response that this body should give is a moment of grace to those families. Not just grace to the Confederate dead, but grace to those who are suffering right now, who’re still alive.”

“You want people to bow and genuflect” before the memory of the Confederate dead, a defiant Cobb-Hunter said. “If you’re not trying to stall, then what’s the problem?”

“How sad it will be if we can’t meet the standard set by our governor, and our two U.S. senators,” added Democrat Leon Stavrinakis, who is a candidate for the post held by the retiring mayor of Charleston. “I can’t go home and tell my people that politics, that a flag, was more important than them.”

“I have watched my colleagues all day refuse to call the Civil War the Civil War,” said African-American Rep. Cesar McKnight, adding that the flag flying outside of the chamber wasn’t anything to be proud of, but rather was “shameful and divisive.”

“I am truly, truly embarrassed to call South Carolina home,” African-American Rep. John King spat out in disgust. “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.”

“What more does it have to take!?” King thundered, just before 10:00 p.m. “Does it have to take another representative or senator to get killed for you all to recognize the hate and the pain that is behind this flag? What does it take!? … Our colleague, Mr. Ott, has given you exactly what you asked for. … Let’s don’t fool the people of South Carolina.”

Finally, after more than an hour of furious backroom negotiations, Democrats were able to convince Quinn to withdraw his amendment and put his name on the Ott resolution, leading to a final dramatic flurry on the floor, as Republicans tried to scuttle Quinn’s attempts to pull his bill at just after 11:10 p.m., and a conservative lawmaker, Rep. Bill Sandifer, tried a final obstructive measure by offering one last amendment on the House floor.

In the end, Quinn managed to pull his amendment, bitterly complaining about the language he had heard that day, but thanking Rep. Ott for his “good faith effort to reach out to me.” He seemed particularly incensed at Horne’s implication that he and other flag supporters lacked the heart to appease the suffering of the nine Charleston victims. But the die was cast, and a clean bill finally passed overwhelmingly on its second reading at 11:55 p.m., and a third and final reading, by 94 to 20, 15 minutes after midnight, backed by the promise of a third vote on the Quinn-Ott bill to fund the war relic museum when the legislature reconvenes in the fall.

On Friday, the flag came down, amid shouts and cries and songs and tears from the throngs of people who gathered on the Statehouse grounds. An honor guard carefully furled the flag – an honor to which the banner was not actually entitled, as it is neither an official national nor a state emblem, and indeed is a flag that was raised against the United States – and handed it to the chief curator of the Relic Room. Hours later, the pole where it hung was uprooted, too, amid shouts and camera snaps from those who remained on the grounds to see the historic removal through to the end.

The members of the Democratic Caucus praised the governor for reversing her position on the flag (which came in part at the urging of corporate interests including Volvo, but according to her staff, was also the result of personal soul searching after the Charleston massacre). And they pointed to a genuine coming together with members across the aisle, including Horne, Quinn and Paul Thurmond, son of the late arch-segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who became the first of many Democrats to exit the party and take over the onetime party of Lincoln in the South over the course of two generations.

The ironies of the fight had been many: as the descendants of Thurmond and Jefferson Davis fought to complete Robert E. Lee’s own call to furl the battle flag of the Confederacy, and members of the once-liberal Republican Party doubled down in support of it, mounting a 15-hour filibuster that was ultimately broken by the legislative machinations of the onetime party of slavery, and the descendants of the enslaved.

Charleston Church Shooting, Confederate flag and South Carolina

The true story of the South Carolina Confederate flag debate

Updated