Politics & Government

Pressure building in final days of Confederate flag debate

Thomas Wiggins, of Columbia, waves an American Flag while showing support to take the Confederate flag off the South Carolina Statehouse grounds on Tuesday.
Thomas Wiggins, of Columbia, waves an American Flag while showing support to take the Confederate flag off the South Carolina Statehouse grounds on Tuesday. tglantz@thestate.com

The Confederate flag could be days away from being removed from the State House grounds.

The S.C. House begins debate Wednesday on a bill approved by the Senate to banish the Civil War icon that has flown at the capitol for more than five decades. The bill needs two more votes to reach Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

The flag could come down as early as Thursday.

But the Confederate banner could remain flying a little longer if some House members who want to find another way to honor their Confederate heritage on the State House grounds delay passage of the bill.

They are considering other flags to replace the battle flag next to the Confederate soldiers’ memorial on the north side of the State House.

Pressure from inside and outside the State House has been building to bring the flag down without striking any compromise in the wake of nine African-American parishioners murdered at a Charleston church in what’s been called a hate crime.

Out-of-state protesters, on both sides of the flag issues, have rankled some state politicians, including Haley. Recent outside efforts to influence the debate include:

▪  Petition-driven advocacy groups submitting more than 626,000 signatures from across the country to remove the flag to Haley’s office. About 100,000 of the signatures came from South Carolinians.

▪  A North Carolina activist who scaled the flagpole at the State House and removed the Confederate flag in protest June 27.

▪  A North Carolina-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan planning to hold a rally at the State House July 18 to protest removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds.

▪  An anonymous pro-Confederate flag group making robocalls that will not say where its organizers are based.

State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said outsiders putting pressure on lawmakers to bring the flag down without any compromise are threatening any deal being made.

“If outside media and groups trying to make a dollar off the situation kept their nose out of the situation, South Carolinians could resolve the issue in unity,” Pitts said, calling that outside pressure part of a “nationwide scrubbing-of-history agenda.”

State Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, who was also among the first to call for the flag to come down in the wake of the Charleston shootings, said outsiders are shaping the debate when it comes to alternatives to the battle flag. When lawmakers met after the shootings it was clear where everyone stood on taking the flag down, Clary said. But the issue of substitute flags has emerged in the last few days.

Clary said it is part of the political system for people to try to exert influence to drive their point of view. “As a representative or a senator, we have to have enough courage, intestinal fortitude and backbone to make the decision that you feel is right.”

Karen Hunter, a New Jersey resident who started one of the petitions delivered to the State House on Tuesday, said people outside South Carolina also have a stake in the Confederate flag.

Hunter, a member of MoveOn.org, said she met a couple in Columbia who signed the petition and asked them where they were from. She said they replied, “We're from Maryland, but we're American, and that flag does not represent us.”

Foes of flying the Confederate flag at the State House might be close to getting their wish.

The S.C. Senate gave final approval Tuesday to its proposal that would just remove the flag, flagpole and fence surrounding the Confederate monument in an overwhelming 36-3 vote.

Just after the approval, senators lined up to hug and shake hands with Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of slain Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine killed in the Charleston church shooting last month.

The debate to remove the Confederate flag reignited after accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof was pictured with the Confederate battle flag in photos that first surfaced on the Internet.

Haley has urged the S.C. House to follow the Senate’s lead. She also indicated she does not want to see another flag flying on the State House grounds.

The House starts debate Wednesday with at least 26 amendments up for consideration. More amendments could be added to stall debate or they could be removed if a compromise is reached.

Pitts said he has more than 20 amendments including many to replace the current flag with another.

Pitts said he wants to push replacing the Confederate battle flag with the infantry flag of the 1st S.C. Volunteers Regiment, the same group memorialized by the Daughters of the Confederacy outside of the House speaker's ceremonial office on the second floor of the State House.

Pitts said he has about 40 co-sponsors on his bill to replace the battle flag with another Confederate-era flag – far lower than the two-thirds needed to become law. “I’m willing to compromise to take that flag down,” Pitts said. “But, I also ask in return, let me fly something in remembrance of my ancestors that’s not been abducted … by racist hate groups.”

State Democratic lawmakers said at a news conference Tuesday that any Confederate-era flag could be co-opted for political or discriminatory purposes since the South’s efforts to maintain slavery were a cause behind the Civil War.

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said another flag would become the new vestige of racism, the heritage of the Confederacy “that simply needs to be removed.”

State Rep. Doug Brannon, a Spartanburg Republican who came out days after the shootings to call for the flag's removal, said any amendment to the Senate bill could lead to summer-long debate or possibly kill the effort to bring it down. “That's where we're at,” Brannon said. “We need to do it. We need to do it today. We need to get it down.”

Brannon said he suspects some groups of lawmakers want to keep the Confederate flag flying, so they are pushing for a replacement — a potential deal breaker. Pitts is not among them, Brannon said.

“But there are a group of people that are using Mr. Pitts' good intentions as a subversive method to keep the flag up,” he said.

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed


S.C. House will debate bill Wednesday


Flag could come down Thursday


Some want an alternate flag