The South Carolina Senate voted Monday to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Capitol, setting up a debate in the state House, where the bill must next be approved by a two-thirds majority before it can be signed by Gov. Nikki Haley. The Republican has said she intends to sign the bill to take down the flag, which became the center of national debate after a white gunman massacred nine black parishioners at a church in downtown Charleston last month.
The 37-3 vote came 154 years after South Carolina troops raised the Confederate flag in place of the United States flag in Charleston harbor on the day of President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration – a month before those same troops fired the first shots at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War; and 53 years after it was hoisted over the statehouse in a gesture of defiance against federal court-ordered desegregation.
The debate has been long in coming.
When South Carolina Gov. Francis W. Pickens, author of the opening call for secession, forced the surrender of the first Union general to concede to the army of the southern republic that had in its Constitution affixed itself to slavery forever, he said of the American and Confederate flags: “I can here say to you it is the first time in the history of this country that the stars and stripes have been humbled. That flag has never before been lowered before any nation on this earth. But today it has been humbled, and humbled before the glorious little State of South Carolina,” replaced by the Confederate cross.
Four years later in March 1865, the once defeated Union general, Major Robert Anderson, led a delegation through Charleston to trumpet the Union victory and flaunt before white South Carolinians the glee of their newly freed slaves, who literally danced in the streets upon seeing that the first Union troops to cross into the city limits were a regiment of “colored” soldiers.
Anderson had come to town on the anniversary of Old Glory’s removal to replace the Confederate banner with the same tattered American flag that had been brought down in 1861. He was flanked by an interracial cadre of anti-slavery crusaders that included white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Vesey, the son of Denmark Vesey, the former slave who co-founded Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and was hanged on July 2nd, 1822 for an alleged conspiracy to mount a massive slave rebellion dubbed “the rising,” after which the church, which came to be known as Mother Emanuel, was burned to the ground.
By 1962, nearly a hundred years of Jim Crow, brutally enforced by southern officialdom, by white citizens councils and by the Klan, had all but obliterated black South Carolinians’ memory of that joyful post-war march through Charleston. The state, joining in the vow of “massive resistance” against desegregation following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, a 1957 Civil Rights Act signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, and the intensifying Freedom Rides, sit ins and civil rights protests rippling across the South, hoisted the flag again. Officially, the cause was the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.
Several other states in the Deep South followed suit, and many of them also built monuments to Confederate heroes and the authors of Jim Crow: a statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky’ state capitol, a bust of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee; and in South Carolina, a statue commemorating onetime governor and U.S. Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, whose militia beat back Reconstruction one beating, burning and lynching at a time, and whose effigy still stands on the same grounds where the flag’s future will be debated Monday.
Numerous attempts by black and white South Carolina lawmakers to remove the flag were defeated over the years; four during the 1990s, including an overwhelming vote to do so in the state Senate in 1994, for which the House failed to hold a timely vote. Then-governor David Beasley, a Republican, was said to have lost his 1998 re-election bid over his attempts to have the flag taken down.
In 2000, in a compromise launched in the wake of a convention and tourism boycott of the state by the NAACP that has now lasted 15 years, the flag was moved from the State House dome to a Confederate Soldier Monument on the Capitol grounds, and a memorial to African-Americans’ history and contributions to the state was erected. But the compromise also put in place the two-thirds vote requirement in both houses of the legislature to have the flag removed; a rider pushed through by flag supporters to ensure that the emblems of the rebel South would be protected in perpetuity. For that reason, Haley was unable to follow the examples of southern governors in Alabama, Virginia and Maryland, who simply had Confederate flags removed from state grounds and state-issued license plates in the wake of the Charleston massacre.
Despite the divisiveness of the emblem, which is incorporated in its entirety or in part in the flags of Mississippi and four other southern states, South Carolina’s Confederate flag seemed fixed in place until June 17, 2015, when a white gunman massacred nine black parishioners during Bible study at Mother Emanuel, including the church’s pastor, State Senator Clementa Pinckney. After the killing, and the release of a manifesto and photos that showed the alleged gunman Dylann Roof’s fealty to both white supremacy and to the Confederate flag, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley reversed her position on the flag and called for its removal to a museum.
“One hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come," Haley said on June 22nd, in a call echoed by activists across the state, and by President Obama, who said as he gave a moving eulogy, in prose and in song, at Pinckney’s funeral: “Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought -- the cause of slavery -- was wrong -- the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.”
South Carolina’s Confederate flag was brought down temporarily by activist Bree Newsome, who scaled the 30-foot flagpole on June 27th and unhooked it from its moorings while quoting The Lord’s Prayer before being arrested, but it was returned to its perch, ironically, by a group that included black state grounds workers. And it flew overhead as Pinckney’s body was driven by horse drawn carriage to lie in state in the Capitol three days earlier, an irony that many African-Americans, in and outside of South Carolina found both deeply ironic and painful.
Many white southerners continue to cling to the flag, which they call an ode to their heritage and not a symbol of hate. But historians have pointed exhaustively to its design and intended use, from the very beginning, as “a symbol of white power and racial oppression.”
Now, the South Carolina legislature will take up its removal, two days after a July Fourth march sponsored by the NAACP calling for its removal and less than two weeks before a Ku Klux Klan group plans a pro-Confederate flag rally at the State House in Columbia. Numerous protests, pro and con, are expected outside and inside the Capitol during this week’s debate.
The debate also comes nearly a week after a fire at Mt. Zion AME church in Greeleyville, about 50 miles from Charleston, was ruled by federal and state investigators to have been caused by lightning, not hate, to the relief of the church’s congregation. Mt. Zion was the seventh black church to burn across the south since the massacre at Mother Emanuel, and tensions and anxieties regarding mattes of race are running high nationwide. (Three of the fires have been determined to be arson, with three caused by lightning or electrical problems and one undetermined, while none have been connected to hate crimes, according to federal investigators.)
As he stood next to the wreckage of Mt. Zion last week, before the results of the federal probe came in, State Sen. Ronnie Sabb said he was cautiously optimistic that this time, the votes will be there to take the flag down.
“Still, you never can be too sure until you count the votes,” he said.