‘It’s always going to be a slap in the face’: Confederate flag at center of growing political storm
Pressure is mounting on South Carolina to pull down the Confederate flag that continues to fly on the grounds of the state capitol, after a Republican legislator announced plans to introduce a bill to remove the divisive symbol that has inflamed feelings in the wake of the Charleston church shootings.
Norman “Doug” Brannon, a white legislator, said on MSNBC that he wanted to introduce the bill because of the death of his friend Clementa Pinckney, a reverend and state senator who was pastor of the Emanuel AME church and one of nine worshippers gunned down there on Wednesday night.
“I’m not political tonight, but I do have access and I will file that bill in December,” Brannon said.
The flag, which represents the region that seceded from the Union in 1861 in defense of slavery, has become the focus of rising tension in South Carolina as a result of the racist opinions expressed by the suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, 21, who was arrested a day after the rampage in a car that bore the Confederate icon. The Battle Flag of the Northern Virginia Army once flew above the state house dome, but was moved to its current location still in state grounds in 2000 .
President Barack Obama said pointedly on Friday that the flag belongs in a museum.
Speaking after a vigil on Friday at the the TD arena in downtown Charleston, South Carolina senator and Republican presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham conceded that further debate on the matter needed to occur but declined to take a position.
“There are graveyards of confederate soldiers all over the state – what do we do? How much of revisiting one’s past is it going to take before we can move forward? To the extent this debate helps us move forward, let’s have that debate.”
Asked by the Guardian what his position in that debate was, however, Graham responded: “That it happens here.”
During standing ovations at the vigil, as those on the podium called for the flag to come down, Graham and fellow South Carolina republican senator Tim Scott stayed seated.
The growing demand for a resolution to South Carolina’s official attachment to one America’s most notorious symbols highlights the fault-line that exists to this day in a state that has consistently failed to make a clean break with its racist secessionist past. The revived dispute over the Confederate flag that has erupted in the wake of the Charleston shootings is just the sharpest expression of an age-old seeping wound.
All across the state, from the urban centers of Columbia and Charleston to the conservative rural heartlands in the north, examples of the Confederacy’s stranglehold on the collective imagination, at least of many white Carolinians, abound. They vary from moderate to extreme, from whimsical to revolutionary.
At the mild end of the spectrum are the many outposts of what might be called Confederacy nostalgia, epitomized by the Confederate Museum located just a few blocks away from the Emanuel AME church. Based on the site of an old slave market, the museum has been curated in a hall that in 1861 was used to recruit and arm thousands of secessionist soldiers.
It is still run by the Charleston chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy , a group formed by the female descendants of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederate forces. Its exhibits include the Secession Flag, as well as a captured Union battle flag.
On the more extreme end, South Carolina remains a hotbed of neo-confederacy nationalism calling for a new secession, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors hate groups and extremist organisations.
“There’s no other state that has this level of pro-confederate sympathies, of hate-group organizations or such an open public display of the Confederate battle flag,” said the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich.
The law center has identified 19 active hate groups in South Carolina, some six of which have secessionist aspirations.
Debate about the prevalence of Confederate imagery in South Carolina was rekindled by photographs of Roof posing on the bonnet of his car that bore a Confederacy license plate. He also made “racially inflammatory” comments during the shooting spree, according to local police.
Though there is no evidence that Roof was directly connected to any hate groups or secessionist campaigns, there are concerns that ubiquitous cultural references to the golden past of the antebellum South may have fueled his racist obsessions.
“He didn’t get those ideas from nowhere,” Beirich said.
One of the most prominent secessionist groups in the state is the South Carolina League of the South. It owns a “Southern Patriot Shop” and a two-acre plot of land in Abbeville, site of the first secession speeches in 1860 that triggered the civil war, which it has turned into a memorial park.
The league’s chairman in South Carolina, Pat Hines, told the Guardian that the purpose of the group was the “survival and wellbeing of the Southern people. We feel we are under siege – we’ve been under attack for the past 150 years.”
Hines said that the league’s members in South Carolina wanted to see a new secession of the southern states. He estimated that some 25% to 40% of the population of the state supported the idea.
Then he clarified to the Guardian that he was referring exclusively to white South Carolinians.
“We consider southern people to be whites,” he said.
Hines denied that the new secessionist movement had any responsibility for the crazed violence of the Charleston mass killer. In fact, he said the league was upset by Roof’s adoption of the Confederate flag.
“We have negative feelings about the fact that this drug-addled young man chose to display Southern symbols. We don’t advocate doing anything like he did. Ask how many Southern nationalists have been involved in mass shootings – the answer is zero.”
In Columbia, the state capital, there were rumors on social media on Friday that a demonstration would take place in an effort to push lawmakers to finally remove the Confederate flag from the state house. It was first raised above the dome of the capital building in 1961, a provocative act coming at a particularly sensitive moment in the history of US civil rights.
Jayne Williams, who is white, ended up being one of two people to show up for the rumored demonstration, and instead sat in the sweltering heat, next to the flags and the signs she had made demanding that the flag be taken down.
“The fact that a pastor and a victim served in the state house and they are basically flying a white victory flag out here is just disgusting me,” said Williams, who is a graduate of Columbine high school, the site of what was once the United States’ most notorious mass shooting.
She drove from North Carolina to South Carolina on a whim, having told her husband that she knew it was crazy, but she needed to see the Confederate flag flying full mast outside the state house building in Columbia, while state and American flags flew at half mast in honour of the nine of victims of the Charleston shooting.
Frustrated, sad and angry, Williams placed nine American flags around the state house’s Confederate memorial, in honor of the Charleston victims. A black state trooper had to ask her to remove the flags.
Meanwhile, black children did cartwheels on the state house lawn as one of their relatives had her pictures taken in a wedding dress on top of the building’s steps. The Confederate flag flew behind the lens.
Gwendolyn Neal, a black woman who was born and raised in South Carolina, said the sign is blatantly offensive: “It’s always going to be a slap in the face, as long as it’s up there.”
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