Less than a month after Charleston church shooting, Governor Nikki Haley to sign legislation removing controversial emblem that has flown for 54 years
The battle flag of the former American Confederacy will stop flying at South Carolina’s statehouse on Friday, 23 days after a mass shooting at one of the state’s emblematic black churches – and 150 years after the south lost a civil war fought largely over slavery, and for which the flag’s endurance has remained a lasting symbol of racism.
Governor Nikki Haley was prepared to sign legislation on Thursday that would require the flag to be removed from government grounds within 24 hours. Her office said it would be taken down from a flagpole near the capitol at 10am the next day, after flying there for nearly 54 years.
The swift negotiations inside the statehouse nextdoor represent the culmination of decades of activism – the flag was first flown above the statehouse dome in 1962, in the midst of the civil-rights movement.
Still, politicians and civil-rights leaders said the flag was largely that – “a symbol of hate” – and that the United States had “unfinished business” to confront its ongoing legacy of structural racism.
Indeed, versions of the Confederate flag continue to fly in Mississippi, where similar emergency legislation has stalled, as well as on the state-issued automobile license plates of several other southern states – and bumper stickers across America.
On Thursday, hours after a marathon session of the South Carolina legislature voted to take down the flag, Republicans in the US Congress were still arguing about whether to fly the flag at national cemeteries.
Bree Newsome, the activist who was arrested for taking down the flag late last month, tweeted: “At what point do we ask what this stubborn refusal to remove the flag indicates about racism in US government?”
The removal of the most prominent flag, at the statehouse in Columbia, comes less than a month after 21-year-old Dylann Roof gunned down nine black people during a Bible study class two hours south, in Charleston. Roof was arrested the next day after driving a car that featured one of the Confederate plates , and a website emerged featuring photos of him posing with the flag .
The shooting triggered yet another debate about the divisive flag and its connection to the Confederacy, which seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery. It flew over the statehouse dome from 1962 until 2000, when it was moved to its current location at a civil war memorial on the building grounds.
On Thursday at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, where eight black congregants and their pastor and South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney were massacred, flowers lined the road outside and red paper hearts adorned the walls.
It was this mass killing, born out of Roof’s alleged desire to “start a race war”, that thrust the issue of the Confederate flag still flying on the South Carolina state house grounds back into the spotlight.
Liz Alston, the church’s historian, who has worshipped at Emanuel AME since 1968 and knew all nine victims as friends, described Thursday’s law as “more than a moment in history, but a milestone”.
By the church’s service board, which still names Pinckney as the pastor leading Sunday prayers, she argued that without the “grace, the faith” the family members of those killed had shown in the aftermath, the debate would not have occurred at all.
At Roof’s bond hearing two days after the shooting, family members stood one by one to forgive him.
“If an act like that can’t move you, then nothing can,” said Alston.
But as one symbolic act serves to dampen the legacy of racism and slavery in Charleston, others still remain. Emanuel AME is situated on Calhoun St, named after John C Calhoun, a leader of the 19th-century pro-slavery movement who famously argued it was a “positive good” for the nation.
Alston called for the street to be renamed.
“I think Emanuel Way or Emanuel Avenue would be a fitting, lasting memorial to the people, not only of the church, but the city of Charleston, South Carolina – and the nation. It would be great gesture of reconciliation.”
Many of those who lined up outside Emanuel AME on Thursday were from out of town, coming to pay their respects for the first time.Kim Hunter, from Sumter, South Carolina, had brought her three young sons to see the church for themselves.
“It’s to make them more aware of what’s going on, to make them think you can’t always take people at face value,” in a reference to the fact Roof was reportedly invited into the church by members of the prayer group he is accused of murdering.
She described the decision to remove the flag as a “first step” that was “long overdue”.
“Is it everyone’s heritage?” said Hunter, an African American. “It’s not mine.”
“My husband is ex-military and we lived in Germany. They wouldn’t fly the Nazi flag there and the reasons are the same.”
Tamoo Williams, a 42 year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, argued: “It’s a shame that it took a tragedy like this to finally get the flag removed. But there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has been campaigning for the flag to be taken down for more than five decades, commended Haley’s decision to sign the bill after it passed so swiftly.
“The NAACP applauds the South Carolina legislature for voting to remove the Confederate battle flag – one of the longest standing symbols of hatred and exclusion – from public spaces and state capitol grounds today,” Cornell William Brooks, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Following a matching state senate bill that passed on Monday after an avalanche of renewed activism , the South Carolina house approved Vincent Sheheen’s bill to remove the flag, 93-27, early on Thursday morning – after more than 13 hours of impassioned debate.
Republican Jenny Horne told her colleagues that she is a descendant of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, then cried aloud as she remembered the funeral of Pinckney.
“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,” Horne said.
After the bill was approved, Haley declared “a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of”.
The governor said the measure “truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state”.
Meanwhile in Washington DC, the Republican-controlled legislature sparred with Democrats over a host of issues related to the flag.
Members of the House of Representatives voted to remove all flags at the federal Capitol, after a heated procedural debate led by Republicans that led to yelling and the display of the Confederate flag – on the House floor.
“Amazed my Republican colleagues are defending a symbol of slavery and hate,” tweeted Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota. “The Confederate flag belongs in a museum.”
Yet the House Republicans decided to hold off on a bill that would allow Confederate flags to be displayed at cemeteries run by the National Park Service.
Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said in a statement that conservatives were following a pattern that “declined to criticize the race-baiting rhetoric”.
“A sizable number of House Republicans are eager to protect the status of the Confederate flag on National Park Service grounds,” he said. “Congressional Republicans have an agenda that is out of step with the vast majority of Americans.”
In a statement of her own, Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner to replace Obama, said: “The flag may soon no longer fly at the state capitol, but there is still unfinished business in confronting and acting on the inequalities that still exist in our country.”
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