Jason MIczek / Reuters

SC lawmakers cast overwhelming vote to debate removing Confederate flag

Gov. Nikki Haley vows to ensure a summer debate on the measure to bar flag from flying on state grounds

South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to consider removing the Confederate flag from their Statehouse grounds and other politicians took aim at Civil War-era symbols across the South, 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.

The House vote brought a standing ovation and rounds of applause after Democratic and Republican leaders jointly sponsored the measure in a show of uncharacteristic unity. Very few lawmakers rose to say the flag should stay; some said they were saving speeches for what promises to be an emotional debate later this summer.

Lawmakers then prayed for state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who joined the legislature in 1997 and who, as pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, was among the dead.

"I ask that in the memory of Mr. Pinckney that we are generous in spirit, gracious in our conversation and please — even if we disagree, let's agree to disagree agreeably," Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter urged her colleagues. "Those nine families have shown us how to do it. I would strongly suggest we take a cue from them."

The measure introduced in the Senate, Bill 0897, reads that it authorizes “the permanent removal of the South Carolina infantry battle flag of the Confederate States of America from its location adjacent to the Confederate Soldier Monument” and put it in a “the Confederate Relic Room for appropriate display.” 

Twenty-eight senators, including Republican Paul Thurmond, sponsored the measure, the statehouse clerk’s office confirmed to Al Jazeera.

Thurmond, son of firebrand segregationist and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, earlier called for the flag to come down. “I’m proud to be on the right side of history to remove this symbol of racism and bigotry from the Statehouse," he said, according to Charleston’s The Post and Courier

For the rebel flag to be permanently removed from state grounds, the bill must be passed by the General Assembly, receiving at least two-thirds of the votes in both the House and the Senate.

Many opponents of the Civil War–era battle flag believe that it is a symbol of black slavery and therefore unfit to be displayed on state grounds. Although activists have long called for the flag to be taken down, last week’s deadly mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston has renewed their campaign. The alleged shooter in the attack revered the flag in photos posted online.

The vote on Tuesday was to take up the matter before the end of the legislative session, which begins each January and ends in June but was recently extended to discuss budgetary matters.

Haley said Monday that she would use her emergency powers to ensure debate on the issue happens this summer.

“We’re going to keep pushing until something is done. We can’t wait for January,” said state Rep. Harold Mitchell.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey also spoke in support of taking down the flag. “This is sacred ground to every citizen of South Carolina,” he said. “We will not stop until that flag goes where it needs to go.” Those who object to having the flag fly at the Capitol say they would like to see it relegated to a museum.

Once South Carolina took action, other states moved quickly.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a statement on Tuesday calling for the phasing out of the Confederate flag on state license plates, according to The Washington Post. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal isn't seeking to have the Confederate battle flag stripped from a Louisiana-issued license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to KLFY.

In Mississippi, Speaker of the House Phil Gunn called for the symbol’s removal from the state flag, according to The Clarion Ledger.

Some corporations have similarly taken a firm stance against the flag. Retail giants Sears, Walmart and Kmart pledged on Tuesday to remove Confederate flag merchandise from store shelves. Online retailer eBay also plans to restrict the sale of such items, Reuters reported. 

The Valley Forge Flag Co., which has sent flags into battle and to the moon, said it won't make Confederate flags anymore. The company's plants are in South Carolina and Alabama.

"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," Valley Forge Vice President Reggie VandenBosch said. "We don't want to do anything that causes pain or disunity for people."

Annin Flagmakers, based in New Jersey, the DIxie Flag Dixie Flag Company in Texas and Eder Flag Manufacturing of Wisconsin also said they would stop making Confederate flags.

Sales of Confederate flag items skyrocketed, according to the New York Times which reported sales of some flag offerings on Amazon soared by more than 5,000 percent as consumers rushed to stock up.

Supporters of the flag, who say it represents Southern heritage and not slavery, have attempted to distance the symbol from the Charleston killings. Dylann Roof, 21, has been charged with nine counts of murder in the case. Police say he walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week and joined a prayer meeting before yelling racist epithets and opening fire.

According to The Post and Courier, President Barack Obama will offer a eulogy on Friday for one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was a state senator.

Removing the flag would serve to “take away Mr. Roof’s symbol,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at a press conference Monday alongside other politicians and civil rights leaders. “The misguided idea of racial superiority and bigotry — take it away from him and all like him.” 

The Confederate flag first flew over South Carolina’s Capitol in 1962, in a show of defiance against civil rights laws, including the desegregation of public schools and the enfranchisement of black voters. Pro-segregation protesters also displayed the flag in opposition to such reforms.

The presence of the flag has served as a source of distress to African-Americans in South Carolina and throughout the United States — a reminder of painful past and fraught present. The NAACP led a charge against the flag in 2000, but the group was not able to see its removal from state grounds. A compromise among lawmakers had the flag relocated from the dome of the Capitol to a nearby memorial to Confederate soldiers.

Dissatisfied with the compromise, civil rights activists have maintained criticism and a longstanding campaign against the flag’s presence.

The Rev. Joe Darby, the vice president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, on Monday said removing the flag was in the best interest of the country. “When you take that flag down, you make a positive statement, not just as white folk or black folk but as Americans,” he said.

But removal of the flag seems a superficial change to some supporters and detractors.

“The flag stands for heritage. The flag wasn’t flown for racism,” Mark Garvin, of the motorcycle group Brothers Forever, told WISTV at the rally. He said he doesn’t own one and is originally from New York. “If the flag is taken down, put in the museum, there are still going to be extremists who can do whatever they want for whatever cause.” 

DeLacy Davis, one of the founding members of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability, told Al Jazeera that it was “unfortunate and a shame” to see these changes taking place only after the deaths of nine people. He and many other members of coalition are black.

“Yes, it’s a cute step in the right direction because it’s politically correct,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it changes the institutions” that perpetuate racism.

“It’s not going to change the conditions for people of color.”

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