Some lawmakers have renewed calls to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after the U.S. and South Carolina flags were lowered at the dome this week out of respect for the Charleston shooting victims – while the battle flag remained in place.
“My sentiment would be that it be lowered and never put back up,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, leader of House Democrats. “We can’t continue to hang symbols in front of our Statehouse and act like nobody is looking.”
The state cannot pretend symbols and words don’t mean anything, Rutherford said, because people like the man charged with shooting the nine in Charleston “don’t seem to know the difference.”
The battle flag has flown at the Confederate Soldier Monument on the north side of the Statehouse just steps from Main Street in Columbia since a compromise by lawmakers removed it from atop the Statehouse dome in 2000.
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Because of the compromise, the Confederate flag does not operate as other flags at the Statehouse, said Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The battle flag is considered a monument and not governed by the law dealing with other flags.
“The flag that was placed at the Confederate soldier’s monument is not included because it is not part of the officially recognized display of flags, which reflect the sovereignty of the state,” he said Friday.
“In that respect, it is to be treated no differently than the flags at another monument, such as the U.S. veterans monument on the Statehouse grounds where the flags of the different branches of services are located,” Martin said. “At this monument, the service flags are flying full, and only the U.S. flag is at half-mast.”
Mechanically, it would be difficult to fly the battle flag at half-staff because there is no rope and pulley system as is the case with most flags.
The NAACP, which has long called for the flag’s removal from the Statehouse grounds, has urged a tourism boycott of the state since the 2000 compromise moved the flag’s location.
“The flag must come down,” William Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, said on Friday during a visit to Charleston. He said the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church were “the act of a racial terrorist and must be treated as such.”
The 21-year-old charged in connection with the shootings, Dylann Storm Roof, is depicted in a photo on his Facebook page wearing a jacket adorned with white supremacy and apartheid-era patches. He also had a Confederate flag license plate.
Rutherford plans to file legislation to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds, something that according to the compromise legislation would take a two-thirds vote in each body.
Rep. Leon Howard, a Columbia Democrat and former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the flag issue isn’t as important as helping family members of the victims, including Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
“When all of this is over, nobody will remember whether the battle flag was raised or lowered,” he said.
Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, a Greenville Democrat, says it is time to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.
“This recent event presents a wonderful opportunity for us to present a more positive image of the state, one that would endear all of our young people to this state, instead of sending a mixed message to some of our young people who may be somewhat vulnerable,” she said.
She said the flag means “many things to many people.”
“To some it’s a part of their proud heritage. But to others it may be a symbol of shame and degradation,” she said. “So while some may have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and they may have good reasons to keep it there, if it’s presence on the site of government sends a mixed message to our youth, then I think it’s incumbent on us to revisit the issue and remove it.”
Other states, including Mississippi, have removed the Confederate flag, she said, and doing so “moves us from the past to a present that will send a message to our young people that will be respectful and tolerant of all South Carolinians.”
“If that had been present in the first place,” Robinson-Simpson said, “a lot of our young people who might be leaning toward that type of bigotry would not be drawn to that direction.”
A petition has gathered 83,235 signatures on MoveOn.org calling for the flag to come down from “all government places.”
“The Confederate flag is not a symbol of Southern pride but rather a symbol of rebellion and racism,” the petition states. “On the heels of the brutal killing of nine black people in a South Carolina church by a racist terrorist, it’s time to put that symbol of rebellion and racism behind us and move toward healing and a better United States of America!”
The petition is seeking a goal of 100,000 signatures.
Rutherford also plans to file legislation “to tell the truth” about Statehouse monuments, such as the monument for former Gov. Ben Tillman, an unapologetic racist politician and founding trustee of Clemson University who served as South Carolina governor when the school was chartered.
Students and faculty at Clemson have called for the renaming of Tillman Hall because of Tillman’s past.
“On his statue it says simply, a great American,” Rutherford said. “It’s time for South Carolina to tell the truth and stop living in the past.”