Crime & Courts

Charleston massacre reignites Confederate flag debate

Twice a day, 21-year-old Chelsea Coleburn walks past the Confederate flag on the State House grounds as she makes her way to and from her Main Street apartment, classes on the University of South Carolina campus and her job there.

On Friday, 36 hours after a Columbia-area man her age with white supremacist leanings was charged with murder in the shootings of nine African-Americans in a historic black church in Charleston, the Florence native said leaving the flag in front of the Capitol “is a disgrace.”

“It represents something that we used to be, something that was a failure,” Coleburn said. “It’s not who we are anymore.”

In the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday night, there are renewed calls for removal of the battle flag, which in 2000 was taken down from the Capitol dome. The flag had flown on the dome since 1962. A hard-fought compromise resulted in its relocation to behind a monument to Confederate dead at the intersection of Gervais and Main streets, arguably the most prominent intersection in South Carolina.

A renewed push for the flag’s removal has arisen quickly.

▪  The national NAACP again has called for it to come down.

▪  Hundreds were expected to attend an impromptu rally on the grounds Saturday evening, an event organized Friday through social media.

▪  A national petition had drawn nearly 150,000 signatures by 3 p.m. Friday.

▪  National media – from CNN to the Atlantic magazine to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart – addressed the issue in tandem with coverage and comment on the killings.

▪  U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is running for president, told CNN’s Newsday on Friday that a return to the flag issue “would be fine with me.”

▪  It was heavily noted on social media that while the state and U.S. flags were lowered to half staff for the victims, the Confederate flag was not.

The Confederate flag is not a sovereign flag and does not operate as other flags at the State House, said Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The battle flag is considered a monument and, under the compromise, is not governed by the law dealing with other flags.

Mechanically, it would be difficult to fly the battle flag at half staff because it has no rope and pulley system as most flags do.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, told The State newspaper he would pre-file a bill in December to remove the flag from the State House grounds. The House minority leader said he hopes that in light of a photograph of accused killer Dylann Storm Roof posing with his car that sports a Confederate flag license plate, the public will rally to remove it from the State House.

“Like Dr. Martin Luther King said in his letter from a Birmingham jail, when are good people going to step up and say enough is enough?” said Rutherford, who sparred with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly Thursday evening.

Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg, said Saturday that he, too, plans to file a bill in the House to take down the Confederate flag.

Brannon, 54, a lawyer, said he held Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper and the church’s pastor, in the highest regard. He said he began thinking about filing the bill after learning that Pinckney was among those killed.

“I had a friend who died on Wednesday night simply because he was a black man,” Brannon said.

“That flag is not just a symbol of hate – it is a symbol of pride in one’s hate,” Brannon said. “It should not be equated with the state of South Carolina in any way. It needs to come off of the capitol grounds, and we need to do it in honor of Sen. Pinckney.”

He said that since word got out Friday that he was thinking about such a bill, he has gotten “about 8,000” communications via social media, email and phone. Nearly all were favorable, he said.

Some fellow Republicans have asked him if they could join him as a co-sponsors of his bill. But he told them it might be politically dangerous, Brannon said.

“I told each of them – don’t co-sponsor the bill. The only political career I’m willing to ruin is mine,” Brannon said.

Most support flag on the grounds

Still, garnering enough support for removing the flag may be hard to find in the Palmetto State.

In November, a Winthrop University poll conducted for The State newspaper showed 61 percent of South Carolinians said the flag should continue to fly where it is, while 33 percent say it should not.

When broken down by race, almost 3 in 4 whites – 73 percent – said the flag should continue flying, while 61 percent of blacks said it should come down.

But that could change in light of the mass murder.

USC President Harris Pastides, whose campus flanks the State House grounds, stopped short of endorsing the flag’s removal Friday. He said the university would participate in any discussion of the issue after an appropriate period of mourning.

“Sometimes change does happen out of a tragedy,” said Pastides, who noted that the flag prevents the university from hosting an NCAA basketball regional tournament because of an NAACP boycott. “Sometimes, it takes a tragedy like this to provide movement.”

State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who was on the compromise committee that brought the flag down from the dome 15 years ago, said he hopes the tragedy will turn public opinion toward removal.

“There needs to be a permanent solution,” Smith said. “I hope it’s driven by the people of the state, which I believe will happen.”

‘I’m still stunned’

Gov. Nikki Haley on CNN Friday morning sidestepped questions about the flag, saying now was a time for healing and not politics. She later told The State newspaper in an emailed statement that she would be open to discussion.

“There will be an appropriate time for policy discussions in the not too distant future, and I welcome them,” she said. “Now is the time for healing our whole state, and most particularly the nine grieving families who will have burial services in the days ahead. That – and lifting those families up in prayer – is where our attention needs to be right now in South Carolina, and where mine will remain until all nine victims are laid to rest.”

That echoes a statement Haley made in October during her re-election campaign when her opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, brought up the issue. A campaign spokesman said at the time that Haley would be willing to revisit the issue if those are the wishes of the General Assembly. But “any such effort should be done in a thoughtful, bipartisan way and not in the heat of the political campaign season.”

Sheheen, who shared a desk with Pinckney, said he still advocates taking down the flag.

“If I were governor, I would snip the lock and take it down myself for Clementa,” Sheheen said. “But I do recognize many of my neighbors and friends believe it’s not a hateful symbol.”

As for whether he would sponsor a bill to bring it down, the Camden Democrat said, “Right now, I’m not focused on what we are doing in January, but (on) building a consensus so that people of good will can come together and place it somewhere else where it doesn’t divide us.”

State law now dictates the flag must fly at the Confederate monument.

South Carolina is not the only former Confederate state to fly its symbols. The state flags of Georgia and Mississippi incorporate images of other Confederate flags.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who also is a member of the compromise committee and helped raise funds for the African-American History Monument, said it was too soon after the tragedy for him to think about the volatile politics of the flag.

“I’m still stunned,” said Courson, a Marine Corps veteran who often states pride in his Confederate heritage. “I’m not going there today.”

‘I think we’ll prevail’

Efforts to reach Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, on Friday were unsuccessful.

Also in the mix is Glenn McConnell, the former president pro tem of the Senate and a Confederate Civil War re-enactor who has moved on to become the president of the College of Charleston.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said that in addition to removing the flag, the Legislature should consider removing the statue of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a 19th century governor and white supremacist who often spoke out against blacks.

“We live in a state where we have symbols on institutional government facilities that represent divisions,” Kimpson said. “After appropriately mourning, we should use this tragedy as an opportunity to truly elevate the conversation of race in America, specifically in the state of South Carolina.”

He said that for the effort to be successful, “the business community should come down” for removal of the symbol.

Efforts Friday to reach leaders of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce were unsuccessful.

Rep. Smith added that although “I’ll be working with all my energy for the removal of the flag from the State House grounds, doing this is not going to fix everything. Don’t think we won’t have people in our midst that have such hate.

“I think we’ll prevail on the flag,” he said. “But we can’t think it will fix everything.”

Staff writers Cassie Cope and John Monk and The Greenville News contributed.

Flag’s State House history

A timeline of the Confederate flag’s hoisting and removal from the South Carolina Capitol dome.

1961: In the midst of the civil rights movement, S.C. commemorated the centennial of the Civil War. The Confederate flag is flown on a flag pole, underneath the U.S. and S.C. flags, on the roof of the State House. At the time, no flags were flying on the dome.

1962: The Democratic-controlled state Legislature passes a concurrent resolution placing the Confederate flag on the State House dome.

1994: NAACP says it will organize national economic sanctions against South Carolina unless the flag is removed.

1996: Then-Gov. David Beasley, a Republican, proposes moving the flag to a monument on the State House grounds.

1997: In Columbia, 500 religious leaders march in support of moving the flag.

1998: Democrat Jim Hodges unseats Beasley, winning votes from flag supporters who thought Beasley had betrayed them.

1999: The national NAACP calls for tourists to boycott South Carolina until the flag is removed. Also, “King Day at the Dome,” a march on the State House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is started in protest of the Confederate flag. The event continues each January.

2000: Demonstrations for and against the flag occur at the State House, including 6,000 flag supporters and more than 46,000 people who demand its removal. Lawmakers pass a law that Hodges signs to move the flag to a flagpole at the Confederate Soldier Monument.