Tami Chappell / Reuters

Rebel flag to fall in South Carolina, ending ‘ugly tradition of prejudice’

After flying on Capitol grounds for over 50 years, the Confederate battle flag will be removed 10 am Friday

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday signed a bill that removes the Confederate flag from the Statehouse in Columbia, 50 years after it first went up in protest of civil rights reform across the South.

Haley used nine pens to sign the bill, which she said would go to the families of the nine black churchgoers killed three weeks ago in Charleston by an alleged white supremacist. She described them as "nine amazing individuals who have forever changed South Carolina history."

Their deaths led to a re-examination in the state over what the Confederate flag symbolizes to members of South Carolina's black community.

The flag will be pulled down from the flagpole on the Capitol's front lawn during a ceremony at 10 a.m. Friday, Haley said. Then the banner will be taken to the Confederate Relic Room a few blocks away for display.

"We will bring it down with dignity, and we will make sure it is stored in its rightful place," she added.

The state House passed the measure early Thursday after 13 hours of debate. The bill requires that the flag come down within 24 hours of Haley’s signature.

After the House's 93-27 vote, there were hugs, tears and high-fives in the chamber. Members snapped selfies and pumped their fists. But even among the celebrations, there was sadness.

The Confederate flag was first flown over the dome of South Carolina's Capitol in 1961 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War's start. It stayed as a protest against the civil rights movement, moving in 2000 from atop the dome to its current location over a Confederate memorial just outside the Statehouse.

The push that brought down the battle flag for good began after the nine black churchgoers, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, were gunned down during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. Police said the white gunman's motivation was racial hatred. Three days later, photos surfaced of the suspect, Dylann Roof, posing with images of Confederate flags.

“I am 44 years old. I never thought I'd see this moment. I stand with people who never thought they would see this as well," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, who called the victims martyrs. "It's emotional for us not just because it came down but why it came down."

Republican Rep. Rick Quinn, who proposed an amendment that seemed would delay the flag's removal for several hours, was happy too after getting a promise that lawmakers would find money for a special display at the Relic Room for the flag that will be removed as well as the one that flew over the Statehouse dome in 2000 when a compromise was passed to move the rebel banner to its current location.

"It was done in a way that was a win to everyone," said Quinn, who voted for the bill.

The back-to-back votes came around 1 a.m. Thursday after more than 13 hours of passionate and contentious debate.

As House members deliberated well into the night, there were tears of anger and shared memories of Civil War ancestors. Black Democrats, frustrated by being asked to show grace to Civil War soldiers as the debate wore on, warned that the state was embarrassing itself.

Changing the Senate bill could have meant taking weeks or even months to remove the flag, perhaps blunting momentum that has grown since the church massacre.

Republican Rep. Jenny Horne reminded her colleagues she is a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and scolded fellow members of her party for stalling the debate with dozens of amendments.

She cried as she remembered Pinckney's funeral and his widow, who hid with one of their daughters in a church office as the gunman fired dozens of shots. "For the widow of Sen. Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury, and I will not be a part of it!" she yelled into a microphone.

She said later during a break she didn't intend to speak but got frustrated with fellow Republicans.

Opponents of removing the flag talked about grandparents who passed down family treasures and lamented that the flag has been "hijacked" or "abducted" by racists.

Rep. Mike Pitts, who remembered playing with a Confederate ancestor's cavalry sword while growing up, said that for him the flag is a reminder of how dirt-poor Southern farmers fought Yankees not because they hated blacks or supported slavery but because their land was being invaded.

Those soldiers should be respected just as soldiers who fought in the Middle East or Afghanistan, he said, recalling his own military service. Pitts then turned to a lawmaker he called a dear friend, recalling how his black colleague nearly died in Vietnam.

Black lawmakers told stories of their ancestors as well. Rep. Joe Neal talked about tracing his family back to four brothers, taken to America in chains to be bought by a slave owner named Neal who changed their names and pulled them apart from their families.

"The whole world is asking, Is South Carolina really going to change, or will it hold to an ugly tradition of prejudice and discrimination and hide behind heritage as an excuse for it?" Neal said.

Other Democrats suggested a delay would let Ku Klux Klan members planning a rally July 18 a chance to dance around the Confederate flag.

With the bill's passage, Democrats were borrowing a line Haley often uses, calling it "a great day in South Carolina."

The governor issued her own statement. "It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state," she said.

Al Jazeera and the Associated Press


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