Rainer Ehrhardt / AP

Activists say South Carolina should remove Confederate flag

Mass killing at historic black church prompts renewed criticism of flag as a symbol of racist hatred

Civil rights activists in Charleston, South Carolina are calling for the state to remove a Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the statehouse, following the death of nine black churchgoers Wednesday allegedly at the hands of a white gunman with racist motivations.  

Dylann Roof, 21, the accused killer, was charged on Friday with nine counts of murder. In an undated picture provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups, Roof posed near a car that sported the Stars and Bars on its front license plate.

The long-running controversy over the Confederate flag flared up again on Thursday when images on social media showed the American and state flags flying at half staff on the state capitol dome, while the Confederate flag flew at full staff near the capitol building.

NAACP president Cornell Brooks decried the presence of the flag at a press conference Friday. “We cannot have the Confederate flag waving in our capital,” Brooks said. Some in the audience replied by chanting, “It’s gotta go! It’s gotta go!”

“The governor and state legislature have a responsibility to remove the flag,” Brooks said. “This is an antiquated discussion for 2015. It needs to come down.”

Until 2000, the flag sat atop the statehouse in South Carolina's capital, Columbia. After calls from the NAACP and state lawmakers to remove it, the legislature reached a compromise: the flag was removed from the Capitol and placed at a memorial for Confederate Civil War dead a few hundred feet from the building. It remains there.

Deray McKesson, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed in 2014 in the wake of protests over the police killings of unarmed black men, denounced the flag as an incitement to violent acts of hate. “Symbols matter,” he said. “In places like South Carolina, the flag is celebrated. It is celebrating a legacy of hate. Small things empower people to commit heinous acts. Removing the flag is a small but important step.”

Ben Jones, the president of Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for descendants of rebel soldiers, said the killings in Charleston had nothing to do with the flag. “It has everything to do with the psychosis of racism and hate,” he said. “This was a very sick — sick to the point of evil — person who committed these unspeakable acts. We’re not going to give up our First Amendment right or sentiments towards our ancestors to please some Northern, politically correct bullshit.”

Jones has been a vocal advocate for the flag, and his organization acted as plaintiff in a recent Supreme Court case, arguing that Texas should allow the emblem on license plates. The court ruled against the group on Thursday, saying the Lone Star State could prohibit the flag on the grounds that plates are state property, unlike bumper stickers or decals

Jones was a Democratic U.S. representative from Georgia from 1989 to 1993. He played Cooter Davenport, a rascally mechanic in the 1980s television show “The Dukes of Hazzard." The show featured a Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee in honor of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, with a Confederate battle flag on its roof. 

Although Jones concedes that racist groups use the flag, he said hate groups “desecrate” his ancestors' memory. “We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. Those who fly the flag in hatred, he says, remain a “crazy” minority.

For McKesson, there is no appropriate way to display the Confederate flag. “The context of the flag is directly linked to the idea that black people are not equal and not free,” he said. “It is simply untrue to suggest the flag is not rooted racism.”

A spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did not immediately return a request for comment on whether the state legislature will hold new hearings or consider new legislation over the flag. 

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