After Dylann Storm Roof allegedly shot up an AME church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine people, two flags were lowered more than 100 miles away in Columbia, the state’s capital. Atop the South Carolina State House, the U.S. flag and South Carolina’s palmetto flag flew at half-staff as the manhunt for Roof ended with his capture in North Carolina and prayer vigils were planned. The show of respect would have been appropriate even if one of the state legislature’s own — state senator Clementa C. Pinckney — had not died in the attack.
But a third flag within view of the State House — a Confederate one — flew as high and as proud as ever, flapping in the breeze on a sunny day.
This looked bad.
Roof was photographed wearing flags himself — of defunct white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia — and drove a car featuring a Confederate flag license plate. The Emanuel AME Church shooting and its description by authorities as a “hate crime” were tragic enough to be compared to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., a murderous act that claimed the lives of four young African American girls and helped bring about passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And yet, as a pastor and members of his flock lay dead and the Supreme Court dealt a blow to those who wish to display Confederate flags on license plates in Texas, South Carolina seemed to be flaunting its heritage of slavery as the first state to secede from the Union. It was deplorable enough, critics said, that the flag was there in the first place.
But, it seemed, no one — particularly not South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) — could do anything about it. This was a matter of law.
“In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag,” a Haley spokesman told ABC on Thursday. “Only the General Assembly can do that.”
That seemed strange. On public property all across America — not just at state houses but at schools, libraries, DMVs and tollway plazas — flags are presumably raised and lowered without reference to or permission from legislative bodies.
But South Carolina has been fighting about its capitol’s Confederate flag for decades. Indeed, the flag first went up on the capitol dome in 1962 in defiance of the burgeoning civil rights movement. A cultural war fought a century after the first battle of Fort Sumter followed.
“The flag issue … has convulsed the state’s political culture for years, as black and white residents argued over whether the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of slavery and oppression, or of a noble Southern heritage,” the New York Times wrote in 2000.
Interest in the flag ebbed and flowed, but was always there.
According to one analysis — “The South Carolina Confederate Flag: The Politics of Race and Citizenship,” published in the journal Politics and Policy in 2001 — the Confederate flag atop the State House often came up in election years. It also received attention after an epidemic of Ku Klux Klan-rated church burnings in the state in the 1990s.
“The church burnings and then the exposure of the local KKK, its adherents, and their involvement in some of the church burning made manifest that the ‘new’ South still had remnants of the old and often used Confederate flags and emblems in their identities,” according to the study. The flag became “a condensing symbol” of racial injustice.
In a state brash enough to host a secession ball, it was a symbol that some thought received too much attention — and one that inspired protests by Hootie and the Blowfish, among many others, as well as ugly rhetoric about race.
“Quit looking at the symbols,” one Republican legislator said in 1997. ”Get out and get a job. Quit shooting each other. Quit having illegitimate babies.”
Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a media darling in the run-up to the 2000 Republican primaries — had to flip-flop about Columbia’s Confederate flag. He was for removing the flag from the State House before he was against it. Then, he was for it again.
“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” McCain said in 2000. ”So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”
The flag came down from atop the South Carolina State House in July of 2000. In a compromise that didn’t really satisfy anyone, it was moved to a nearby Confederate war memorial.
“At the ceremony moving the flag off the dome and to the new location on the capitol grounds, pro-flag activists chanted, ‘Off the dome, and in your face,'” according to “The Politics of Race and Citizenship.” “Antiflag protesters, unsatisfied with the compromise, countered, ‘Shame.'”
The law that moved the flag was quite detailed: The flag could not fly from the capitol dome, but had to appear at a memorial near the dome and could appear in legislators’ offices. Legislators even specified the type of flag, its placement, and the dimensions of its display.
“This flag must be flown on a flagpole located at a point on the south side of the Confederate Soldier Monument, centered on the monument, ten feet from the base of the monument at a height of thirty feet,” it read. “The flagpole on which the flag is flown and the area adjacent to the monument and flagpole must be illuminated at night and an appropriate decorative iron fence must be erected around the flagpole.”
Anyone who wanted to move the flag faced one of the greatest hurdles in democratic politics: “The provisions of this section may only be amended or repealed upon passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly,” the bill read.
A further obstacle to critics of the Confederate flag: It’s affixed to the pole, and can’t come down unless someone gets up there and pulls it down — which would be illegal anyway.
“The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed,” Raycom Media reporter Will Wilson tweeted.
To some, the explanation seemed thin in the face of the Emanuel AME massacre.
“Roof’s crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated his state nor from its potent symbol — the Confederate flag,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the Atlantic in a piece called “Take Down the Confederate Flag — Now.” “Visitors to Charleston have long been treated to South Carolina’s attempt to clean its history and depict its secession as something other than a war to guarantee the enslavement of the majority of its residents. This notion is belied by any serious interrogation of the Civil War and the primary documents of its instigators. Yet the Confederate battle flag — the flag of Dylann Roof—still flies on the Capitol grounds in Columbia.”
One Twitter user was quite succinct — and specific — in describing what the state should do to honor the victims at Emanuel AME.
“Instructions for appropriate display of Confederate flag after tragedy,” American University economics lecturer Daniel Lin wrote. “1) Lower to half-mast 2) Keep lowering until removed 3) You’re done.”
Although Gov. Haley was quick to post a statement expressing sympathy for the victims and describing the shooting as “senseless,” some pointed out that she has done nothing since she took office four years ago to get Columbia’s Confederate flag removed. After all, the NAACP asked South Carolina’s first Indian American governor to get rid of the flag years ago.
“Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first governor of color, continues to fly the Confederate flag in front of her state’s Capitol,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said in 2011. “Given the similarities between our struggles to end slavery and segregation, and her ancestors’ struggle to end British colonialism and oppression in India, my question to Governor Haley is one that Dr. King often asked himself: What would Gandhi do?”
The response back then: a deal was a deal.
“More than a decade ago, under the leadership of a Democratic governor, South Carolinians — Republican and Democrat, black and white — came to a compromise position on the Confederate flag,” a Haley spokesman said in 2011. “Many people were uncomfortable with that compromise, but it addressed a sensitive subject in a way that South Carolina as a whole could accept. We don’t expect people from outside the state to understand that dynamic, but revisiting that issue is not part of the governor’s agenda.”
Haley, it seems, will shed no tears over her inability to remove the flag. As she’s said, it’s not bad for business.
“What I can tell you is over the last 3½ years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” she said last year in a gubernatorial debate. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
In that same debate, Haley said “perception of South Carolina matters” — and offered herself as proof that the burdens of the state’s history had been overcome.
“We really kind of fixed all that when we elected the first Indian American female governor,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version this post referred to “the Voting Rights Act of 1964.” The legislation was signed in 1965.
Clarification: An earlier version of this post used the term “stars and bars” as a generic synonym for the Confederate flag. However, the flag flying atop Columbia’s dome is, as per state law, a Confederate battle flag. Here’s the relevant language: “The South Carolina Infantry Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America is square measuring fifty-two inches on each side, inclusive of the white border, with a St. Andrews Cross of blue, edged with white, with thirteen equal five-pointed stars, upon a red field, with the whole banner bordered in white. The blue arms of the cross are 7.5 inches wide and the white border around the flag proper is 1.5 inches wide. The stars are five-pointed, inscribed within a circle six inches in diameter, and are uniform in size.”