South Carolina Lawmakers Take Steps to Debate Confederate Flag's Removal

South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to consider removing the Confederate battle flag from their Statehouse grounds as politicians took aim at Civil War-era symbols in other states, saying change is imperative after police said nine black churchgoers were slain in a hate crime.

Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley's call the day before to move the flag to a museum, lawmakers approved a measure enabling a flag debate by a vote of 103-10 in the House and a voice vote in the Senate.

South Carolina State Senator Vincent Sheheen formally introduced a bill Tuesday to bring down the Confederate battle flag from its position on the capitol grounds and relegate it to a relic room in the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, marking the state's first step toward removing the historic but divisive symbol.

Very few lawmakers rose to say the flag should stay, although some said they were saving speeches for what promises to be an emotional debate later this summer.

Hundreds of people — many of them from Charleston — gathered on the State House in Tuesday's sweltering heat to demand the removal of the flag from outside the State House, chanting "bring it down, bring it down."

Within minutes of convening a special session on the budget Tuesday, legislators agreed to debate the flag removal once the final budget is approved during another session later this summer.

As legislators mulled the changes on Tuesday, sales of Confederate flags and related merchandise spiked online and in stores as big-name retailers like Wal-Mart, Sears and eBay said they were dropping all their products with an image of the flag. Target, Amazon and followed suit Tuesday, while major flag-maker Valley Forge announced it would no longer make the Confederate battle flag.

Gov. Nikki Haley's unexpected call for the flag to come down also reverberated around the South Tuesday, as a growing number of other politicians announced their own against the rebel standard.

Haley's reversal was prompted by last week's massacre of nine black people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston in what authorities describe as a racial hate crime. Her move suddenly eroded the position many southern lawmakers have held onto throughout their careers: that debating the status of the Confederate flag would be too racially divisive today.

"The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it," Haley said Monday. But she said that for many others, it is a "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past," and argued that removing it from such a public space will help South Carolina come together and heal.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin called it impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic this week, "out of respect for the services that will be held."

On Wednesday, mourners are expected to file past the coffin of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney beneath the Statehouse dome. On Friday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral in Charleston.

But Najee Washington, granddaughter of victim Ethel Lance, said swift action would mean a lot to her family.

"That would be great," said Washington, 23, who lived with Lance. "It's just a part of the past that we don't need to be reminded of every day."

During the rally, a shouting match broke out at the base of the Confederate monument where South Carolina's rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole, in full view of U.S. and state flags flying at half-staff.

"This flag is heritage. If you take it down you won't get rid of racism. The flag didn't pull the trigger. The flag didn't kill anybody. That was an individual that did that," said Mark Garman, 56, of Eastover, one of a handful of flag supporters in the crowd of hundreds.

Tom Clements knows this heritage — he brought a poster displaying details and photos about his great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy, and three great-great uncles who died for the South. He said he loved the Confederate flag growing up, but now sees it as a symbol of oppression.

"The racists took over the memories of the Confederacy," said Clements, who joined the chants of "bring it down."

The only Republican to speak at Tuesday's anti-flag rally, Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, said he supports removing the flag and believes it will happen, but he asked the crowd to respect all views as the debate begins.

"There are some very good and decent people in up there in the General Assembly without a racist bone in their body who revere that flag. And I think it is important ... that we let them have their say," Davis said.

Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers under the terms of the 2000 deal that moved a square version of the flag to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front.

State GOP Chairman Matt Moore said he believes both parties are committed to bringing it down.

"With enough political will anything can be done," Moore said. "There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds."

Haley's announcement came only days after authorities announced murder charges against Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man who told a friend that he had a plan to do something "for the white race" and posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.

Leaders in other states swiftly followed suit: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, and in Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must be removed from the Senate.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday ordered the replacement of vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag, saying the banner is "hurtful" for too many people. And Kentucky's Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, called for removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from his Capitol's rotunda.

Big businesses also took action: Wal-Mart, e-Bay and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, which e-Bay called a "contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism."

The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument out front in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina since 2001.

For years, South Carolina lawmakers sought shelter in that bipartisan compromise, saying that renewing the debate would unnecessarily revive painful divisions. Nationally, politicians said it was up to the state to decide. But after Haley's announcement Monday, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the call to remove it.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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