COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Confederate flag can stand for almost anything in this state — an emblem of identity or racial hate or just boozy partying — and here was one flag that Todd Rutherford wasn’t sure whether he had to worry about.
He was on Lake Murray last weekend on a 28-footer, shared mostly with other African Americans, when the engine cut out and the group started drifting straight toward a big pontoon boat. Rutherford, a state lawmaker, looked at the people on the pleasure craft they were approaching: 40 guys, maybe one of them black. And then he noticed a massive Confederate flag rippling from the pontoon’s flagpole.
“We needed help,” Rutherford said, and this was another story about the uncertainty and anxiety — and sometimes the banality — of seeing this symbol in the South.
“The guys from the pontoon came down, helped us navigate around them, nice as can be,” Rutherford said. “No animus at all.
“That’s South Carolina. It would not be unusual if my car broke down and a guy with a Confederate flag plate helped me out. But you never know. Dylann Roof went to Charleston to kill black people, but he had black friends. That’s South Carolina, too.”
In a state riven by the recent police shooting of an unarmed black man and now the hate-fueled slaughter of nine African Americans in a Charleston church, thousands are protesting the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the state capitol — 30 feet up, surrounded by a black gate. But the scarred landscape of South Carolina’s race relations is marked, too, by thousands of other flags, tattooed on arms, displayed in taverns, printed on bumper stickers, flown in front of homes, and more recently used as Facebook profile pictures by some who believe their views are unfairly under attack.
In the days since the church shooting, the state that was the last to officially acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday (in 2000) has realized that the symbolism of the flag remains painfully unresolved.
Top South Carolina politicians, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) and Gov. Nikki Haley (R), on Monday called for the flag’s removal. Meanwhile, the #TakeItDown hashtag has spread across Instagram and Facebook, and people throughout the state are trying to make sense of a symbol that is both a war relic and a banner for white supremacists, both a celebrated symbol of a discrete region and the emblem that Roof kept on the front of his car and brandished in photos he published on his Web site.
“It’s complicated, is what I can say,” Ronny Jeffcoat, 63, of rural Edmund, S.C., said on Sunday morning as, 110 miles away, mourners packed Emanuel AME Church for the first time since the shooting there.
Jeffcoat’s bedroom television was tuned to CNN, broadcasting the church service.
Jeffcoat’s bedroom window was covered with the Confederate flag, pinned behind the blinds with a couple of clear thumbtacks.
“Problem is, it’s just that stupid people that go out and misrepresent it,” Jeffcoat said of the flag.
“Nobody’s ever said a thing about it to us,” said Jeffcoat’s girlfriend, Barbara Tedder, 53. “Never had a problem from anybody.”
Their bedroom flag is visible from the street.
“And if somebody did come here with a problem about it,” she said, “I’d tell them to leave.”
In recent years, South Carolinians say, the Confederate flag has receded from the mainstream. Maurice’s Piggie Park, a well-known chain of barbecue restaurants started by a white segregationist, took its last flag down in 2013. The flag has all but disappeared from wealthy or urban neighborhoods. In several hours of driving through central Columbia, a reporter could find only one home flying the flag, a mobile home that appeared abandoned.
“Neighborhoods have become somewhat more integrated, and a flag will hurt the property values of the neighborhood,” said Rodgers Boykin, 55, an African American artist from Columbia.
But one is still liable to see the flag anywhere: in a Home Depot parking lot, on a billboard along the highway, plastered on T-shirts sold at the Dixie Republic store bearing the words “I Will Never Apologize for Being Southern.”
And as the flag has become a target of jokes and scorn — comedian Chris Rock once suggested placing a “Malcolm” atop the flag’s “X” — those who value the flag have dug in for a fight.
“Once again we are under attack,” was how Leland Summers, a state leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, began a Facebook post Saturday. Summers wrote that he was fielding worrying media calls and that the shootings in Charleston “have absolutely NO connection, relevance or relationship to the Confederate Battle Flag.”
The post was shared dozens of times, liked hundreds more, and ping-ponged around the Internet where, a day later, Summers found photos of a Confederate memorial in Charleston that had been marked with graffiti.
“Are you aware that the monument was vandalized?” Summers asked in a phone conversation. “Our side, we don’t stoop to those levels.”
Lee Bright, a South Carolina state senator with a Confederate flag framed above his office sofa, saw his inbox ping with hundreds of e-mails calling for the flag to come down from the statehouse grounds. He said the rebel symbol was threatened by a “war of political correctness” run amok.
“It’s a lot of hateful e-mails about the South,” Bright said. “If they have such contempt for it, they’re welcome to stay where they are. Just because a mass murderer has a symbol on his automobile — there are folks that have killed in the name throughout history. We won’t take things out of context just because of an atrocity.
“The Klan used to burn crosses, but nobody thinks of that as a hate symbol. I am very proud of the history of South Carolina. I don’t think any reasonable person would make an argument for slavery, but the men who defended the South were just trying to protect their homes.”
Those who stand behind the Confederate flag say its removal will not change the underlying problem of race relations in America.
“Maybe that’s true,” said Nicole Drown, 24, a white recent graduate of Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, S.C. “But it would at least acknowledge the past mistakes of our history.”
They also say the flag represents a war for states’ rights, a campaign against federalism.
“Yeah, the war was about states’ rights — the right to have slaves,” said Deb Libaire of Beaufort, S.C., who is white and signed a MoveOn.Org petition calling for the Confederate flag to be taken down.
They also say, almost without exception, that the flag is not about racism.
“Lots of people are trying to put hate into it, but to me it’s a part of my heritage,” said Ron Campbell, 64, who has a Confederate flag planted in his front yard, right in front of a sign that says his home is “protected by loaded guns.”
“It’s a big tradition,” he said moments later, and he said he wasn’t a hateful guy: He worked with blacks before retiring from a corrugated-box company, and he once had some drinks at a mostly black bar, and he had a couple of black friends back in Florida, “where people don’t hold as much of a grudge.”
“The only thing that really gets me — black heritage is being pushed hard,” Campbell said. “On the TV news, always one black guy and one white guy. They have Black History Month. Hell, they’ve got it better than I do, a lot of the blacks. Most are smarter than me. I’m just a common guy.”
He walked over to his flag and studied the ground. He had bought the flag for $9.90 at a store in Columbia. The pole was just a rickety thing, no concrete base.
He had been watching the news of late and realized what people were talking about, and he worried that fewer young people agreed with him about what the flag represented.
“The next generation, they want a one-race society,” Campbell said, referring to the prospect of a population in which racial distinctions are lost. “I’m the last of a dying breed.”