Politics & Government

SC House votes to remove Confederate flag from State House grounds

Rep. Todd Rutherford and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis celebrate the passage of the bill that will remove the Confederate flag from the State House Grounds. 7/9/15
Rep. Todd Rutherford and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis celebrate the passage of the bill that will remove the Confederate flag from the State House Grounds. 7/9/15 tdominick@thestate.com

The Confederate flag will leave the South Carolina State House grounds after five decades this week after the House overwhelmingly approved a bill to remove the Civil War icon early Thursday morning.

The House voted 94-20 to banish the flag from the Capitol after more than 12 hours of debate over the historic measure.

The bill now heads to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature. Haley started the call for removing the flag in the days after nine African-Americans were shot and killed in a historic Charleston church last month.

“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,” Haley said in a Facebook post.

If Haley signs the bill Thursday, the flag could be taken down Friday.

A two-thirds majority vote in the House was needed for final passage, a requirement of the the 2000 law that took the flag off the State House dome and put it next to the Confederate Soldier Monument on the north side of the Capitol.

The House gave final approval to the final two readings of the bill within minutes of each other at 1 a.m. Thursday. The Senate approved removing the flag on Tuesday.

The House did not change the Senate bill after spending much of Wednesday considering amendments from Republicans who insisted on finding another way to honor the Confederate dead if the controversial banner was removed from the State House grounds.

More than 25 amendments were voted down or rejected before they came for a vote.

The debate stalemate ended after four hours of debate on an amendment by state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who said he wanted to ensure the flag is displayed honorably once it is lowered.

His amendment would have required the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where the flag would go, to send a plan to lawmakers by Jan. 1 on how the flag would be displayed and what it would cost.

“Let’s let the folks who are not racist at least have some comfort that we’re going to have a plan on how to handle this in January,” Quinn said.

But after a stream of Democrats took to the floor to voice their opposition in the hope of taking down the flag this week, Quinn withdrew his amendment. Adding an amendment to the bill that had been approved by the Senate would have delayed removing the flag until next week.

The House did agree to consider resolutions to assure the Relic Room is ready to display the flag after it leaves the State House.

Quinn, said that the introduction of his proposal as a separate resolution and agreement from Democrats that they would not go after other monuments led to him supporting the Senate bill.

“Those reassurances…made me feel like it was better just to move on,” he said.

The Senate opposed the addition of any amendments and would have called for negotiations to reach a compromise with the House that would extended the flag debate into next week.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, called the flag debate "one of the toughest issues that I've had to deal with in now 17 years," adding there were "a few times during the night when we weren't moving as smoothly as we should have."

Lucas voted to replace the Confederate flag with the state flag, a proposal which despite not passing he "thought it was a compromise on a very tough issue,”

“But at the end of the day, I also could understand that the bill had to move forward,” he said. “I was proud to vote for it on the second and third reading to move our state forward."

Haley along with top political and business leaders in the state have pushed for the flag’s removal since the shootings while parishioner attended a Bible study inside Emanuel AME Church. State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Jasper Democrat who was the church’s pastor, was among those killed.

The push to get rid of the banner came as pictures of the accused shooter, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old from the Columbia area posing with the Confederate flag, surfaced online. Authorities have called the shooting a hate crime.

State Rep. Lonnie Hosey, a Barnwell Democrat and an African-American U.S. Marine Corps veteran, called the vote “the greatest thing.”

“That's something that I can go to my grave saying we accomplished here in South Carolina to bring people together,” he said. “This divide has stayed too long, and now I hope we can mend the differences that we have by not looking at a flag that would cause this (tragedy) to happen. I know it's going to take some time, but it's a start.”

A turning point in the House debate came after eight hours lawmakers of rejecting amendments to fly other flags in place of the battle flag. Amendment supporters took up hours talking about the need to respect their heritage, while acknowledging the Confederate flag had to come down out of respect to the shooting victims.

State Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, stepped up to the podium and urged lawmakers to end attempts their amend the Senate bill that would delay removing the flag and flagpole this week.

“The people of Charleston deserve immediate and swift removal of that flag from this grounds,” Horne said. “We can save for another day where this flag needs to go, which flag needs to fly, or where it needs to fly.”

Horne became tearful and started shouting: “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday. We are telling the people of Charleston, ‘We don't care about you.’ ”

The speech ended debates on amendments that would not have any chance of passing.

The Charleston shooting has reignited passions on both sides of the flag debate, drawing anti-flag activists from across the country and the Ku Klux Klan and other pro-Confederate groups to the State House in protests.

But much of the discussions Wednesday in the House centered on the forgiveness and civility from the victims families as well as other South Carolinains in the wake of the shootings.

"We're moving forward, we're on the right track,” Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said. “We started off the day right, and it's ending right. I'm grateful for the families that demonstrated what forgiveness and grace is all about. They've showed the world, and now tonight we followed their lead."

And the flag will be gone a little more than three weeks after the killings at Emanuel AME Church.

“It’s a good feeling to see something move this quickly in South Carolina,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, one of the first Republicans to call for the flag to come down.

The debate was a reminder of the compromise lawmakers struck 15 years ago that moved the Confederate flag from the State House dome to the grounds, where it now flies next to the Confederate Soldier Monument. In exchange, an African-American history monument was erected on State House grounds.

Out of a few dozen amendments – most designed to extend debate, a proposal to replace the battle flag with a lesser-known Confederate-era infantry flag specific to South Carolina, the First S.C. Volunteer Infantry Regiment flag, garnered the most support. That amendment failed in a 61-56 vote to reject it.

A vote early Thursday morning to replace the battle flag with the state flag was defeated 63-57.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, asked flag opponents to show grace to South Carolinians who see the flag as a symbol of heritage.

Grace has been a common theme since some relatives of the victims were willing to forgive Roof, the accused shooter, in the days after their murders. President Barack Obama also spoke of grace during his eulogy for Pinckney.

“I can recognize the pain that many of you and your constituents feel when you see that battle flag,” Pope said. “I am asking you now to show some grace. I'm asking you to see the history and the heritage that many of us, many of our constituency, in that monument, in that flagpole, in that Confederate Relic Room.”

Later, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic African-American from Orangeburg, said those calls for grace from alternative-flag backers were “offensive.”

Some lawmakers said they sought the compromise to help them appease constituents back home.

“We’re not asking for a whole lot ... but we’ve got to have a little something to take home, too,” Rep. Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson, said.

Behind the scenes Wednesday, House leaders and the governor met privately.

Before the S.C. House began debating, Lucas and Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, had a roughly 30 minute-meeting at the governor’s office.

Haley later attended the private House GOP Caucus meeting at lunch and spoke for about 15 minutes.

Rep. Doug Brannon, a Spartanburg Republican who called for the flag’s removal days after the Charleston church shooting last month, said after the meeting that Haley’s message was clear: “The governor said (she wants) a clean bill, no amendments, and she cried.”

Haley has been emotional at times speaking about the nine African-American parishioners who were slain. She attended the funerals for all of the victims.

Reporter Cassie Cope and Andrew Shain contributed.

What’s next

The next steps now that the S.C. House and Senate have approved removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds:

1) The bill must be ratified by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, before they send it to the governor.

That is expected to take place Thursday.

2) Gov. Nikki Haley must sign the bill to make it law.

She is expected to do that Thursday.

3) The flag must be removed within 24 hours.

That suggests the flag will likely come down Friday. Some lawmakers have talked about having Citadel cadets take down the flag.

The flag would be delivered to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, as required by law. The museum is about a mile from the State House.

4) The flagpole and fence next to the Confederate Soldier Monument will be removed at a later date.

Statement released by Governor Nikki Haley after the vote early Thursday

“Today, as the Senate did before them, the House of Representatives has served the State of South Carolina and her people with great dignity. I'm grateful for their service and their compassion. 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.”

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