COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers on Monday began debating whether to bring the Confederate flag down outside the Capitol, starting with a pair of senators whose families arrived in the state before the Civil War.
Both men — one white, one black — have come to the same conclusion that the rebel flag no longer represents the valor of Southern soldiers but the racism that led them to separate from the United States more than 150 years ago.
The Confederate flag “has more to do with what was going on in the 1960s as opposed to the 1860s,” said Republican Sen. Larry Martin, who is white and has fought off attempts to move the flag for decades.
Martin, whose family came to South Carolina’s northern backcountry in the early 1800s, said he changed his mind after nine people were shot to death during Bible study at a historic African-American church in Charleston by a man police say was motivated by racial hatred.
Then there was Sen. Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat who helped write the compromise that brought the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome in 2000 and put it in its current location on a pole on the capitol’s front lawn. His family was also in South Carolina during the Civil War. His great-grandfather’s brother left a plantation when Gen. William Sherman came storming through Columbia and joined the Union army.
Jackson said he regretted not going farther to get rid of the flag completely 15 years ago. But he welcomed the chance now to honor his ancestor and freed slave Ishmael Jackson.
“You said we lost the war. No we didn’t. Not Ishmael Jackson and the 57 percent of people who looked like him. As far as they are concerned, they won the war,” Jackson said.
The Senate expected to continue the debate Monday afternoon.
The only flag supporter to speak was Sen. Lee Bright, who briefly introduced an amendment to put the fate of the Confederate flag to a popular vote and asked the Senate to debate gay marriage, saying it was time for the church and the South “to rise up.”
A survey asking lawmakers how they intend to vote after Haley’s call to remove the flag found at least 33 senators and 83 House members agreed with her, satisfying the two-thirds majority required by law to alter the flag’s position. But the survey by The Post and Courier newspaper, the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press asked only about whether to keep or lower the flag. It did not include any possible changes that could cause the proposal to lose support.
The flag will not come down Monday, even with the support of Gov. Nikki Haley. The House must deal with the governor’s vetoes first, and there are indications the proposal could have a tougher road in that chamber. Some powerful Republicans have not said how they will vote, including House Speaker Jay Lucas.
Some Republicans want to keep the flagpole and put a different flag on it. Suggestions have included the U.S. flag, the South Carolina flag and a flag that may have been flown by Confederate troops but does not have the same connections as the red banner with the blue cross and white stars.
Democrats have said they cannot support any flag linked to the Confederacy. Haley and business leaders agree.
“There is no good-looking Confederate flag. It all stands for the same thing — secession,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Outside the Statehouse, dozens of protesters began to arrive, all watched by dozens of officers inside and outside the capitol. Some called for the flag to come down. Others, such as Nelson Waller in his rebel flag tie, said the state was giving in to Northern liberals and civil rights activists.
Waller carried a sign that read “Keep the flag. Dump Nikki!” Two decades ago, he carried a “Dump Beasley” sign after then-Gov. David Beasley made an unsuccessful attempt to get the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome.
A few years after Beasley’s push and a round of stories that embarrassed the state’s business community, a consensus emerged that South Carolina — the last state to fly a Confederate flag on its Capitol dome — needed to pull down the banner. But 15 years ago, lawmakers spent months discussing whether to build a healing pool, display authentic flags in glass cases as a history lesson or include the Confederate flag in a circle of flags of historical significance. The compromise was reached a few weeks before the session ended.