Wednesday, June 24, 2015
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate battle flag was still flying high atop a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina Statehouse on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to honor their beloved black colleague with a viewing in the Rotunda.
Elsewhere around the nation, leaders were already demoting the historic but divisive symbol. By the order of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday, four Confederate banners were being taken down from a large monument to secessionist soldiers outside that state's capitol.
No Alabama law prohibits the removal of the flags by executive order, said a Bentley spokeswoman who called the flags "a distraction."
The slaying of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other black people who welcomed a gunman into their Bible study session at one of the nation's oldest churches has become a catalyst for re-examining the meaning of Civil War symbols.
But in South Carolina, making any changes to Civil War symbols requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the state legislature, and while lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a debate later this summer, few wanted to risky ugly words during a week of funerals for the people killed in the church attack.
Pinckney's open coffin will be on display in the Statehouse Rotunda for four hours Wednesday. Senators gathered by his desk, draped in black, and signed up for 30-minute shifts beside his body so he wouldn't be alone.
Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley's call the day before to move the flag to a museum, South Carolina's lawmakers overwhelmingly approved measures to hold a debate on the flag later this summer.
Politicians around the nation then joined calls for removing historic but divisive Civil War-era symbols from places of honor, from state flags to license plates to statues and place names. Many said change is imperative after the white man accused of shooting of nine black churchgoers posed with the flag.
Even the Citadel, South Carolina influential military college, whose cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War, voted in favor of moving its Confederate Naval Jack flag from its prominent place inside its main chapel to a more "appropriate" campus location.
As with any other historic symbol in the state, even that move will require state lawmakers to amend the same Heritage Act that has kept the Confederate battle flag flying high outside the statehouse, even as U.S. and state flags were lowered to half-staff.
At a rally outside the Statehouse, civil rights activist Kevin Gray said it's time to stop using the word "victims" to describe the nine people slain inside Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. They are martyrs, he said, and if Confederate symbols come down, their deaths will not have been in vain.
Conservative Republican lawmakers who have led southern states for years were adding their voices to these sentiments Wednesday. U.S. Senator Roger Wicker became Mississippi's second top-tier Republican to call for changing the flag that state has used since Reconstruction. Wicker said it "should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying."
Lawmakers in Tennessee said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from their Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was among several state leaders taking aim at vanity license plates with Confederate symbols.
Businesses also moved quickly: Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears were among those removing Confederate merchandise from stores and online sites, and at least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the Confederate flag.
"When you have a sea change moment like you have with the tragedy in Charleston, we felt it was simply the right thing to do," said Reggie VandenBosch, the vice president at flagmaker Valley Forge. "We don't want to do anything that causes pain or disunity for people."
For many, these changes can't happen quickly enough. For many others, it's all too fast.
Confederate symbols appear all over the South, from statehouses to courthouses to schools and streets and parks. Already, a growing number of statues have been defaced by graffiti such as #racism and "Black Lives Matter."
These symbols are under attack by a "wave of political correctness" that is vilifying Southern culture, complained Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the TV series "Dukes of Hazzard." He said Confederate items will never be removed from the Cooter's Place stores he owns in Tennessee and Virginia.
The few South Carolina lawmakers openly defending the flag include Republican Jonathon Hill, a freshman representative who said the flag rightly flies over a monument dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers. He also said dealing with the issue so soon was disrespectful to the victims' families.
"You're going to defeat racism with love and forgiveness. You're not going to defeat it with politics and certainly not with more hatred," said Hill. "Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it's a very divisive issue," he said, referring to the shooting suspect. "I think it could very well get ugly."
Roof, who faces murder and gun charges in the church attack, had posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags. A friend of his told The Associated Press that Roof had talked of planning to do something "for the white race."
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop South Carolina's Statehouse dome in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and lawmakers decided to keep it there in 1962 in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to the flagpole out front in 2000.
A second viewing of Pinckney will take place Thursday morning at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in his Senate district, and Thursday night at Emanuel AME where he was pastor, and where he was slain during last Wednesday's Bible study session in a ground-floor meeting room.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston.