The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jenny Horne: How a descendant of the president of the Confederacy helped vanquish his flag

Republican Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, gave a passionate speech on the state house floor urging the Confederate flag be removed. (Video: Reuters)

On June 17, a church in Charleston became the scene of horrific slaughter. White supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly murdered a beloved pastor and eight of his parishioners simply because they were black. Roof, his friends said, wanted to incite a race war. Instead, he incited a fierce debate over racism and the Confederate flag.

Less than a month later, that debate came full circle on Wednesday night. In a remarkable scene, reminiscent of furious 19th-century slavery debates in Congress, members of the South Carolina House of Representatives made passionate pleas for and against keeping the Confederate flag flying in front of the state capitol.

[South Carolina House votes to remove Confederate flag]

Over 13 excruciating hours, the entire country watched as the ghosts of the Civil War seemed to stir once more.  There was soul-searching and breast-beating, shouting and tears, insults and accusations and amendments, lots of them, designed to thwart a vote.

And for a moment, it seemed as if the Confederate flag just might keep flying after all.

But then Jenny Horne decided that she had had enough.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Summerville stepped up to the podium and delivered words so raw and impassioned they would immediately go viral on the Internet. More important, her four-minute speech would alter the course of the debate, and with it, South Carolina history. The state where the Civil War began, where Strom Thurmond presided as governor, and father of the segregationist Dixiecrats, a state steeped proudly in history and its symbols, disavowed the most freighted symbol of them all, the Confederate flag.

“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, shouting through tears. “For the widow of Senator Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury.”

Horne’s fiery speech, bolstered by her reminder that Confederate president Jefferson Davis was her ancestor, injected new energy into what appeared to be a flagging take-down-the-flag faction and helped pave the way for a 1 a.m. vote to remove the flag from the state capitol.

Amazingly, Horne said her powerful words were not planned.

“At that point we were losing the vote. It was going south,” she told The Washington Post in an interview shortly after the historic vote. “If what I did changed the course of the debate, and I do believe it did, then it needed to be done. Because that flag needed to come down a long time ago.”

Horne may have been the most impassioned speaker on Wednesday night, but she wasn’t alone in sensing that South Carolina was turning an important page on its past.

State and national leaders expressed similar relief that the South Carolina House had cleared the way for the Confederate flag to come down.

“Today, as the Senate did before them, the House of Representatives has served the State of South Carolina and her people with great dignity,” said Gov. Nikki Haley on Facebook. “I’m grateful for their service and their compassion. It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state”

Haley said she will sign the bill into law on Thursday at 4 p.m. EDT. A ceremony is planned for Friday at 10 a.m. to take it down.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 21: A confederate flag reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Arizona. The Confederate flag (aka the Rebel Flag) can be seen in plain view in almost any part of the United States although sightings are more common in the South. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“This moment is about more than a flag or a vote. It’s about the hope that now, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we have grown beyond our differences and have begun to grow together,” wrote Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin on Twitter. “This is not the end of division, of prejudice or of hate. But it is the beginning of something new. If we can hold on to it and to each other, if we can nurture that hope and help it grow, then we will have something more precious than history. We will have a future.”

But if South Carolina, and perhaps the South, has turned a corner, at least symbolically, it’s a transformation that almost didn’t happen on Wednesday. When Horne took the podium, the prospects of passing the bill were fading fast.

Her voice hoarse from shouting, Horne told The Post she was simply fed up with the obstructionist tactics from members of her own Republican Party.

“I thought the stall tactics were childish,” she said. “It turned into an endurance contest and we spent I don’t know how many hours doing something that the Senate did in a fraction of the time and I, quite frankly, was insulted.

“We had spent an entire day trying to slow this bill down and bog it down and force it to conference committee and drag this debate out for weeks and weeks and weeks, and I had just decided that it was time that somebody stood up and said what was the real issue here.

“The real issue is that that flag is a symbol of hate and it’s on a public ground where people, the entire state, they own that state house,” she continued. “That is public property. And to me, if that flag offends a percentage of our citizenry, including the people in Charleston, then we owed it to them to act in accordance with the Senate to take it down in a unified fashion.”

Perhaps the most surprising and powerful part of Horne’s speech came when she invoked her lineage to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

Horne said she resurrected Davis to cut through arguments from fellow representatives that the flag symbolized their southern heritage.

“I grew up holding that flag in reverence because of the stories of my ancestors carrying that flag into battle,” Rep. Michael Pitts, a white Republican, had told the House earlier in the debate.

“I have wept over this thing. I have bathed this thing in prayer. I have called my pastor to pray for me,” added Rep. Eric Bedingfield, also a white Republican and defender of the flag. “You can’t erase history.”

“I’m sorry. I have heard enough about heritage,” Horne said during the debate. “I have a heritage. I am a lifelong South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, okay? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the statehouse grounds.”

[6 key moments from the South Carolina Senate debate]

“We discussed a lot about heritage and lineage and all those things, but it’s not really relevant to the discussion because it’s nothing personal,” Horne said in the interview.  “Yes, I have a very rich lineage but I don’t go around and brag about it and talk about [it]. My point was: ‘Yes, that’s great, you’ve got a lineage. But this is not about you as an individual.’ It’s about the state and the well-being of the state and its people.

“It’s not about ‘Oh, my great-grandfather was killed in the Civil War and he gave his life.’ That’s not what we are here to talk about. What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now. And in 2015, that flag was used as a symbol of hatred,” Horne told The Post.

“It’s time to take it down and put it in a museum,” she said. “We’re not fighting the Civil War anymore. That war has been fought. It’s time to move forward and do what’s best for the people of South Carolina.”

Even with her impassioned speech, however, it took the House five more hours to pass the bill. Much of that time was spent debating an amendment introduced by Republican Rep. Rick Quinn and hammering out a compromise that would allow the text of the proposal to be approved without changing the original bill.

“Some call it the war between the states, some call it the Civil War,” Pitts said, defending the Confederate flag. “Growing up, in my family, it was called the war of Northern aggression; it was where the Yankees attacked the South, and that’s what was ingrained on in me growing up.”

As the clock neared midnight and the bill neared a critical vote, Pitts introduced a final, surprise amendment calling for the memorial’s Confederate flag to be replaced by the state’s flag.

A handful of other representatives came forward to support Pitts’s midnight amendment, which, like the ones before it, would have sent the bill to a conference committee and shelved the flag’s furling. The moment would have been lost, if not the battle.

“A clear majority of people in this body want to take down the Confederate battle flag,” said Rep. James Merrill, a Republican dressed in a dapper white suit. “We have figured out that it is going to be moved. It is going to come down, there is no doubt about it… but I just truly don’t understand why we can’t support putting the South Carolina state flag up there.”

After nearly an hour delay, the final amendment — No. 68 — failed. Senate Bill 897 passed 94-20, more than the two-thirds majority needed.

When asked how she felt knowing that she had played a large part in the effort to pass the bill, Horne paused for almost a minute before answering.

“I’m feeling … I’m trying to put [it] in words because I don’t know that I have the adequate words,” she said.

“Being a lifelong resident of South Carolina, I never thought…,” she said, choking up. “I never thought we’d get it down in my lifetime. And I’m very proud of the men and women in the House of Representatives who had the courage to vote to take it down. So for that, I’m grateful.

“I am proud of the people who did the right thing,” she said. “And I am proud of South Carolina.”