The South Carolina State House early this morning, after 12 hours of debate that at times invoked “the war of norther aggression” and other times the massacre of nine parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church last month, voted 94-20 at 1 a.m. to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the Capitol, 77 years after it first rose in the House chamber and 54 years after it rose over the Capitol in a bombastic celebration of the first shots of the Civil War.
The House vote coincided with the 147th anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, extending to former slaves liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights.
The House vote overcame 25 amendments that attempted to dilute, change or delay the bill and finally mustered the two-thirds majority required since a 2000 law had made that margin necessary, if the Legislature were to alter the racist flag’s placement. It did so as numerous legislators warned of a mounting backlash against the state that would have severe consequences for economic development and tourism.
The South Carolina Senate passed a bill to remove the flag on Monday by a more overwhelming margin. The bill now goes to Gov. Nikki Haley, who asked for the flag’s removal last month in the wake of the church massacre, and who is expected to sign it today. The flag will to come down any time after that.
“Today, as the Senate did before them, the House of Representatives has served the State of South Carolina and her people with great dignity,” Haley wrote in a Facebook post early this morning. “I’m grateful for their service and their compassion. It is 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.”
But just as South Carolina was taking a decisive step toward conciliation, the Marion County Commission in Florida voted unanimously to reverse a decision that had removed the Confederate flag from county government grounds last week, where it had flown for two decades.
“I don’t think it’s disrespectful. I think we’re trying to be respectful of all of our citizens,” Commission Chairman Stan McClain, who is white, said. Marion County’s population is 13 percent black. McClain acknowledged that the flag could have been moved to a museum. “One of our challenges is that we don’t have a museum.” In fact, the partially county-supported Marion County Museum of History on 26th Street in Ocala is a few hundred feet from the county commission’s offices on 25th Street.
The Confederate flag in South Carolina is headed for the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. The museum had once been part of the capitol grounds. It is now in the old Columbia Mills Building. On July 1, the museum became an independent state agency.
The 12 hours of debate spanned the spectrum of ideas, ideologies, myths, resentments, offenses, delusions, connivances, correctives, wit and passions that have surrounded Confederate-flag debates for more than half a century, since the reactionary South resurrected it as a symbol of resistance to integration and hate toward blacks, usually under the guise of “heritage” or preservation of history.
“It’s not about hate. And I understand that our heritage with this flag that’s out there has been hijacked,” House member W. Brian White, who several times referred to the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” said.
He heard echoes. “Some call it the War Between the States. Some call it the Civil War. Growing up, my family, it was called the War of Northern Aggression. It’s where the Yankees attacked the South,” Rep. Michael Pitts said. “The misrepresentation and the abduction – not the co-opting, the abduction – by despicable hate groups that took that flag as a symbol, was not what I grew up with.”
The rhetoric of reaction and resentment, however, was often outdone by more current, more aware voices in the present. “That’s something that I can go to my grave saying we accomplished here in South Carolina to bring people together,” Rep. Lonnie Hosey said. “This divide has stayed too long, and now I hope we can mend the differences that we have by not looking at a flag that would cause this (tragedy) to happen. I know it’s going to take some time, but it’s a start.”
“The people of Charleston deserve swift and immediate removal of that flag from these grounds,” Rep. John Anderson Horne said. “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. And for the widow of Senator Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury, and I will not be a part of it. We need to follow the example of the Senate, remove this flag, and do it today. Because this issue is not getting any better with age.”
“We’re moving forward, we’re on the right track,” Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat, said. “We started off the day right, and it’s ending right. I’m grateful for the families that demonstrated what forgiveness and grace is all about. They’ve showed the world, and now tonight we followed their lead.”
“This might be two terms in one for me – my first and last,” Rep. Neal Collins said.
The flag had gone up in the South Carolina House chamber in 1938, and in the Senate chamber in 1956. It rose over the South Carolina statehouse on April 11, 1961, as part of a recreation of the first day of the Civil War, and the firing on Fort Sumter. It was a year later that the South Carolina Legislature passed a resolution approving the flag’s flying over the capitol, though it’d not been taken down for a year. The first protests to remove the flag started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Legislators doubled down. In 1995, in the face of boycott threats and mounting protests, they passed a law giving themselves sole power to remove the flag. In 1998, a year after Gov. David Beasley proposed to remove the flag to a monument, he was defeated. Protests grow. In 2000, the flag is removed from the state dome, only to be raised nearby, alongside a Confederate memorial. That’s where it remained until this week.
Exactly 50 years ago, Erskine Caldwell, the novelist of “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre,” wrote of the Confederate flag as “The South’s Other Venerable Tradition.” He began by relating the experience of witnessing, as a boy and in the company of his father, the brutalizing of a black sharecropper at a white landowner’s hand. The sharecropper had bought a cow without asking the landowner’s permission. Caldwell then spoke of the Deep South’s “venerable tradition of military valor, gracious hospitality and amorous proclivity for its coat-of-arms,” echoing much of the veneration heaped on the South Carolina’s traditions during Wednesday’s debate at the South Carolina Legislature. But then he went on to write of “the other side of the emblem,” a heritage symbolized by the Confederate flag.
“Even after all this time since the ending of the Civil War,” Caldwell wrote, “the attitude of the unreconstructed Rebel toward the Yankee is symbolized in many parts of the Deep South by the flaunting of the Confederate flag. This in itself may be either patriotic or defiant, depending upon individual motivation, but nevertheless it has come to signify to the rest of the world a mountain-family-feud, get-even-with-you type of resentment. Whatever the motivation, the Confederate flag will be associated for a long time with premeditated acts of violence directed at Yankees and Southerners alike who strive to eliminate provincial feudalism and institute American democracy. Instead of being left on the graves of Confederate soldiers as a memorial, it is frequently taken up and waved by self-appointed night riders and organized groups while threatening and intimidating, as well as using violence, in their attempt to force a kind of autonomous government or home rule upon this large region of the United States.”