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South Carolina legislature set to debate Confederate flag

A survey of lawmakers shows support to remove the rebel flag from Capitol grounds — but some still have reservations

While it appears there is broad support in the South Carolina Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol, the depth of that support will get its first test this week as lawmakers return to Columbia to come up with a specific plan.

The General Assembly returns Monday to discuss Gov. Nikki Haley's budget vetoes and what to do with the rebel flag that has flown over some part of the Statehouse for more than 50 years.

Several bills have been filed, but details such as when to bring down the flag that currently flies on a pole by a monument to Confederate soldiers in front of the legislature, whether to put another flag in its place and what kind of ceremony should mark the removal aren't specified.

The debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina has resonated across the country. In Minnesota, a small-town firefighter has been suspended after hanging the emblem from a fire truck during an Independence holiday parade. He told local television station KARE that he neither supported the Confederacy or slavery, but flew the banner to voice his opposition to political correctness. The display comes after major American companies, including Walmart, Sears, eBay and Amazon, have pulled some products that feature the flag.

But the debate rages strongest in the states that seceded from the Union in 1861, and South Carolina was the first to do so. If lawmakers there take any lesson from the 2000 debate that brought the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome and to its current location, it is that minor details can trip things up.

Haley, business leaders, the Legislative Black Caucus and civil rights leaders are against flying any flag that flew over the Confederacy on the pole.

"There is no good-looking Confederate flag. It all stands for the same thing — secession," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Fifteen years ago, there was consensus that South Carolina — the last state to fly a Confederate flag on its Capitol dome — needed to pull down the banner. But lawmakers spent months discussing whether to build a healing pool, or display authentic flags in glass cases as a history lesson or include the Confederate flag in a circle of flags of historical significance. The compromise was reached a few weeks before the session ended.

The killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month by a man police said was motivated by racial hatred and photographed holding Confederate flags and regalia has created consensus again that the flag must be removed from the Statehouse entirely.

A survey of lawmakers by The Post and Courier newspaper, the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press asking lawmakers how they intend to vote after Haley's call to remove the flag found at least 33 senators and 83 House members agreed with her, reaching the threshold of a two-thirds vote needed under the law to alter the flag's position.

But not all lawmakers support the idea without some reservation. There is talk about raising a flag that cadets fought under when the Civil War started that looks like the current South Carolina flag done in red instead of blue to replace the current Confederate flag. In 2007, a bill to remove the flag entirely included a clause that the flag could still fly on Confederate Memorial Day, and that idea may resurface.

There are powerful Republicans who have not said how they will vote. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler hasn't taken a public position. Neither has House Speaker Jay Lucas.

There are a few voices for the flag. State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, is trying to raise money with Confederate flag bumper stickers with the message "keep your hands off my flag." He also wants the state's voters to decide whether the flag is moved.

"In South Carolina, we know what this flag symbolizes: resistance against a federal, centralized power that far overreached its constitutional limits. It proudly symbolizes states' rights and constitutional liberties, which many have fought and died for," Bright wrote in a statement on his website.

But plenty of lawmakers who held their nose and accepted the 2000 compromise aren't willing to make any deal this time, said Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, who joined the Senate in 2002.

"This is not a time to talk about compromise," Malloy said. "That flag pole should be replaced with some beautiful green grass."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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