On July 10, 2015, a flood of thousands gathered outside the South Carolina statehouse, intent to watch the Confederate flag fall and never return.
It had been nearly a month since an avowed white supremacist gunman had murdered nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., just over 100 miles away. In photographs online, the shooter had posed with the Confederate symbol. So that morning in July, after an honor guard lowered the flag, then unclipped it, the emotional crowd bearing witness to history cheered and applauded and chanted “U.S.A.!” The flag — a controversial symbol of the enslavement of African Americans and the bloody Civil War fought over that injustice — was taken away, destined for a museum, after waving on capitol grounds for 54 years.
There were hugs and more cheers. There were tears.
Then with less grandeur, a construction crew cleared away all evidence that the flag had ever flown there — the pole, the wrought iron fence that surrounded it, and even the concrete slab upon which it towered.
A Confederate memorial still remained, but the flag, and its historical implications, were gone for good.
Until Sunday, exactly one year since that day, when the Confederate flag reappeared.
It was hoisted not by the South Carolina government, but by a group that calls itself the South Carolina Secessionist Party, a “grass-roots organization with the goal of restoring Sovereignty, Integrity and Honor to the Palmetto State,” according to its Facebook page.
Men dressed as Civil War soldiers gathered alongside a couple hundred ralliers, in the same place people cheered one year ago, to resurrect their beloved flag. They brought along their own portable pole and with the help of a Confederate Memorial Honor Guard, once again raised the flag in the very spot it once flew — just to take it down a few hours later.
The rally was preplanned and cleared with authorities, drawing a police presence and barricades to maintain peace and order, reported the Associated Press. Helicopters hovered overhead as the ralliers saluted the flag, cheered and broke out into a singalong of “Dixie.”
“Leave it there!” some shouted, according to the AP.
But it was lowered again at 5 p.m., when the demonstration permit expired, reported The State.
“You made your ancestors proud and we know they smiled down on you today,” the South Carolina Secessionist Party wrote in a Facebook message to attendees Sunday. “For those who did not remain until the flag was lowered, you missed a sign from the heavens today. When the flag was lowered it began to rain, as if our ancestors began to cry from heaven.”
A Black Lives Matter counterprotest was scheduled for Sunday, but after the bloody events last week that ended with a deadly mass shooting in downtown Dallas that claimed the lives of five police officers, local leaders decided it was best to stand down.
They rescheduled their event, “Not My Heritage,” for the end of the month, when they’ll gather at the statehouse and demand a ban of Confederate emblems nationwide, and particularly in South Carolina.
The group’s chapter president, Derrick Quarles, told The State that they had agreed Sunday was not the time to focus on the flag, and that they didn’t want the rally to erupt into violence like many other weekend protests had across the country.
“It’s a very sensitive time around the nation,” Quarles said.
James Bessenger, the chairman of the Secessionist Party’s board, told The State that his group was contacted by South Carolina capitol police after the Dallas shooting to ask if they planned to postpone their rally, but after a special board meeting, they decided to press on.
The event, according to their Facebook page, will be an annual gathering.
At least a dozen counterprotesters did amass behind a barricade across from the pro-Confederate rally, carrying a red, black and green “black liberation” flag and chanting through a bullhorn about the victims of the Charleston shooting at the Emanuel AME church.
“That flag is hate!” the man with the bullhorn shouted, according to the AP. “That’s why it was taken down in the first place.”
After the Secessionist Party cleared the grounds, that small cohort of counterprotesters grew by the hundreds, the message shifting to a narrative that has captivated the nation for years and took on new meaning last week when the shooting deaths of two black men in separate cities at the hands of police were recorded and posted online.
One occurred Tuesday, the other Wednesday. Mayhem broke out in Dallas Thursday.
Demonstrators with Black Lives Matter and affiliated organizations gathered at the statehouse around 7 p.m., where they remained for several hours before moving into downtown Columbia and then across both lanes of Interstate 126. Authorities shut down the highways for an hour over safety concerns, WIS TV 10 reported. Traffic was diverted, and eventually the marchers returned to the capitol.
According to the TV station, no arrests had been made as of 12:40 a.m. Monday.
In response to the protests, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin released a statement about the Columbia Police Department, alluding to alleged incidents of high-profile police brutality across the country.
“Our country is facing unfathomable times and grief, but here in Columbia, we’ve embraced the power of encouraging prayer, thoughtful, nonviolent protests, and open communication,” Benjamin said in the statement, according to WIS TV 10. “In implementing meaningful systemic reforms and treating our officers like the professionals they are, we’ve laid a foundation for continued growth and understanding.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) also released a statement on the night’s events, after both the Columbia protest and one in Greenville, S.C., that briefly shut down Interstate 385, reported TV station WLTX 19.
“Last year South Carolina showed the power of listening, respect and kindness,” Haley said in the statement. “Whether passing the nation’s first body camera law, removing a divisive symbol of the past from the Statehouse, or helping neighbors through the floods, our people rose to the occasion. While I appreciate the peaceful intent of this weekend’s rallies, I’d ask that we not put our fellow citizens or law enforcement at risk — which is exactly what attempting to block highways does. Instead, let us remember the feelings of respect, cooperation, and brotherhood that brought our state through the last year, and made South Carolina an example, for all the world, of how to move forward in the wake of tragedy.”