The S.C. General Assembly put the Confederate battle flag in a place of prominence on the Statehouse grounds. Now after nine deaths in the horrendous Charleston church shooting, the legislature must take it down.
Today, as the body of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the slain Jasper County Democrat and pastor of the church, lay in honor at the Statehouse, imagine the feelings of those who had to pass the Confederate flag before they paid their last respects.
That flag shouldn’t be there today or in the future. A governor can’t take it down. But the legislature can — either by a supermajority vote to override the portion of a state law protecting the flag and areas named for historical figures. Or, as U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn argues, they could just repeal the whole law, which would only take a majority.
The battle flag apparently first got put on the Statehouse dome in 1961 as part of a centennial to commemorate the Civil War, according to a 1999 story in Point. The flag kept flying until passage of a legislative resolution the following year. Such resolutions apply only to the legislative branch, which controls what happens in the Statehouse buildings and grounds. Despite attempts at revisionist history by some conservative columnists, then-Gov. Fritz Hollings did not raise the flag because governors do not have approval or veto authority over legislative resolutions.
The move to fly the battle flag prominently was pushed by Aiken Rep. John A. May, a legislator so enamored by Confederate heritage that he reportedly wore a Confederate uniform around the Statehouse. As time passed, the flag became more controversial. Although there were several attempts in the 1990s to remove it, including a march on Columbia from the Lowcountry led by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a compromise in 2000 put the flag in its current location.
Fast forward to today. In the week since the tragic, senseless shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, momentum surged to remove this Civil War icon — something that represents Southern heritage to some, but has grown exponentially to symbolize hate to many, many more.
Over the weekend, pressure increased on people like GOP Gov. Nikki Haley so that she could no longer ignore the divisive issue of the flag on Statehouse grounds. Prior to Monday, Haley bypassed the issue, saying CEOs interested in the state never brought up the issue. (The state, of course, obviously didn’t inquire. )
So how did this public reversal happen so quickly? Consider these pressure points:
- Unified voices. The governor attended three large gatherings over four days with hundreds of people united in their outrage and pain over the shootings. Such emotional experiences had to shatter any notions that she could continue to overlook the flag issue.
- Political power. It surely was no coincidence that the chairman of the Republican National Committee was part of the bipartisan Monday news conference during which Haley announced she thought the flag should come down. Party leaders surely don’t want 2016 presidential and other candidates constantly asked for their position on the flag. So they looked to Haley to get rid of the political problem for them — with the carrot of future political roles to speed change.
- Business demands. South Carolina has worked hard to attract global companies — Michelin, BMW, Boeing and, now, Volvo — that want to do business, not stain their reputations with a political issue as divisive as the Confederate flag. Calls by the business leadership certainly had an impact on shifting state leaders’ position on the flag.
- Religious reactions. Because the shooting occurred in a church, a place of sanctuary, black and white people of faith united in reactions of shock, horror and anger about the murders. And then when the victims’ families publicly forgave the shooter during a bond hearing last week, more momentum built for change.
South Carolina has been tested over the last 11 weeks, first with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop in North Charleston, and then with the Charleston massacre. But unlike other places in America that erupted in violence after their challenges, South Carolinians united. It helped that a suspect was caught quickly. But this confluence of pressures, perhaps fueled by different motives, generated a tidal wave for something big to be done.
It’s pretty clear South Carolina has turned a big corner. As a state, we’ve still got a lot of healing and talking to do. But now, the legislature needs to catch up and finish the job by taking down the flag.