In the wake of the latest hate-fueled mass shooting of a prominent African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by 21 year-old racist, Dylan Roof, a major wave of momentum is fomenting towards a longstanding controversy, the public display of the Confederate flag in the state. The controversy over South Carolina’s reluctance to remove the “symbol of heritage” is nothing new, as I remember the issue being a flashpoint when I was in high school in the early 1990s. Two of South Carolina’s most prominent politicians, Republicans Senator, Lindsay Graham and Governor, Nikki Haley, both defended displaying the flag in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, citing the historical and traditional significance. On the other hand, President Barack Obama reiterated his belief that the flag “belongs in a museum,” a call echoed by Charleston mayor, Joseph P. Riley. The discovery of a racist manifesto published on a website owned by Roof, which contains several references to the flag and the Confederacy has helped to fuel what is probably the largest groundswell ever for removal of the symbol from all government establishments. The mounting bipartisan support for the flag’s removal in South Carolina and nationwide has led to both Graham and Haley making an about-face in the past 24 hours, as both are now coming out against the flag. Even with the change in perspective, however, it may take more than momentum to remove the symbol.
As most people know, the Confederate flag has long been a symbol of pride among many people not just in South Carolina, but in much of the Deep South. Even as hundreds marched onto the statehouse calling for the removal of the flag, it will be extremely difficult to achieve even with overwhelming popular support. . As a response to the controversy a generation ago, legislators in 2000 passed a compromise law that moved the flag from the capitol dome and to the Confederate Soldier Monument, which has been located on the statehouse grounds since 1879. The compromise was, however, that a smaller flag would still be displayed on the capitol lawn. The South Carolina Heritage Act is so specific that it mandates the exact height that the flag must fly, 30 feet, and there is no pulley system to raise and lower the flag, it either flies or it must be removed. Most importantly, the law also mandated that any further removals would have to be approved by two-thirds of the state legislature, which appears nearly impossible given the deeply conservative nature of the legislative body.
Although Graham and Haley add significant political clout to the call to remove the flag, it would take an overwhelming change of heart for the majority of legislators, most of them living in the state for much, if not all of their lives, absorbing the culture surrounding the symbolism. However, having lived briefly in the capital, Columbia, I did notice the flag being displayed in vehicles and dwellings to a moderate degree, however, I saw much more frequent displays of Confederate symbolism in the three years I lived in North Florida as well as my frequent trips to Southern Georgia. For that matter, Mississippi’s state flag contains the Confederate flag within it. Not that Mississippi is the model for racial equality, but it shows that South Carolina’s claim of a unique attachment to the flag’s symbolism to be questionable. The 2012 Republican presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) both advocated for removal, although other prominent Republicans like leading presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, along with Ohio’s John Kasich and Texas’s Ted Cruz have said that the issue should be left to the state.
South Carolina citizens have been largely divided on racial lines over the issue, as a November 2014 Winthrop University poll showed that 61 percent of the state’s residents believe the flag should remain. 73 percent of whites believed it should stay while 60 percent of blacks thought it should go. It will likely depend on how much those numbers shift, not just in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston tragedy, but more importantly the sentiment months if not years from now. The legislative session is over for South Carolina, although lawmakers will be back to work Tuesday in an extended emergency session to finish the state budget. Protesters have camped out at the statehouse, joining Democratic lawmakers in a push, as Mayor Riley said, “to take the extra step and attend to this unfinished business.” More likely than not, however, the issue will delayed until the next session. If the fervor over the flag’s removal persists in the coming months, change may be possible. Barring a last-minute scramble this week in the statehouse, however, it is likely that the American attention span will be focused on other issues by then, possibly including other tragedies like the one in Charleston. The issue will probably be kicked down the road for the next generation to resolve, establishing a new South Carolina tradition.
CNN – Tom Foreman
New York Times – Jonathan Martin
Washington Post – Jeremy Borden and Mark Berman