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South Carolina lawmakers discuss moving Confederate flag, while Amazon and Wal-Mart join the debate

The Confederate flag flying on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The revived debate raging over the Confederate flag  moved inside the South Carolina statehouse Tuesday, as lawmakers agreed to begin discussing whether to remove a flag flying on the grounds of the Capitol.

Even as companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart quickly jumped into the fray, dropping Confederate-themed items from their physical and digital shelves, legislators here took a more measured approach a day after the governor called for action. Bills were quickly introduced in both houses that call for taking down the flag, an issue that has come to symbolize how South Carolina’s troubled past lingers into its painful present.

“I expect the House to act swiftly,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, a rural area Republican, said in emotional remarks to members of the House. “Evil in this state will never prevail or divide us.”

Lucas said a bill would move quickly through the committee process, while State Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman also vowed to move quickly on the issue. “The world is watching us,” Leatherman said.

Even as one particular flag’s prominence became a focal point in this state, arguments about similar Confederate symbols have rapidly gained steam across the country in the days since nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., were gunned down inside a historic church last week by a white man.

A manifesto authorities say belonged to Dylann Roof, the alleged gunman, was littered with images of the flag, which remains ubiquitous in Southern culture. But after the church massacre last week, many in South Carolina wondered about the flag in Columbia.

Etsy, eBay, Amazon, Wal-Mart and Sears are leading corporate movement to drop sales of merchandise featuring the Confederate flag. (Video: Reuters)

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As the demonstrations and public outcry over the flag grew louder, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and an array of other prominent South Carolina leaders reversed earlier positions — including some expressed just days earlier, in the case of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — and joined the voices calling for the flag’s removal.

People can keep flying the flag on their own property, Haley said, but “the statehouse is different.”

State law dictates that the flag has to be flown at the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the statehouse grounds thanks to a 2000 bill that banished it from the Capitol dome. The same bill also says the flag can only be removed with a two-thirds vote from each chamber of the General Assembly, though there’s some debate in the state about that particular language.

The state House of Representatives amended its end-of-session resolution to allow the chamber to debate the flag issue on Tuesday, with the Senate following suit a short time later. In the House, representatives quickly voted to amend its so-called “sine die” resolution, which dictates what the General Assembly can take up after its regularly scheduled end date in early June.

Emotional state senators, on the other hand, took their time to linger over the gravity of the moment. Many took the Senate floor, not far from the empty seat of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the state senator and pastor who was gunned down in Charleston.

Pinckney’s seat was draped in black, while a white flower sat on his desk. On Wednesday, a week after the shooting, his body will lie in state in the rotunda here. On Thursday evening, his body will be moved to Emanuel AME church on Thursday evening for viewing, while President Obama is set to deliver the eulogy at his funeral Friday.

Republicans and Democrats alike took turns telling their colleagues that the debate must occur and the flag should be removed. They included Sen. Paul Thurmond, the son of former staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond and a Charleston Republican. He said that times have changed and so should the flag.

“They were fighting to keep human beings as slaves,” Thurmond said of the Civil War. “I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and were wrong, wrong, wrong. Now we have these hate groups. It is time to acknowledge our past… and work towards a better future. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate and divisiveness.”

He added, perhaps addressing some critics: “I’m not simply reacting.”

The relative unanimity may not last, although aside from Sen. Lee Bright, few have publicly expressed objections.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader, said he had spoken with House Republican leadership and said the House plans to vote to take the flag down.

“Out of something so horrific there is a glimmer of hope,” he said.

The Senate, like the House, introduced a bill that would move the flag into a state museum. Sen. Paul Campbell, a Charleston Republican, said his chamber’s bill has almost 30 sponsors. It would take 31 votes in the Senate to pass the bill, so Campbell pointed to the number of sponsors as a good sign for the bill’s passage.

Separate bills will now move forward in both chambers and leaders said they would move quickly, hoping to pass a bill to remove the flag by the middle of July. Rep. David Weeks, a Democrat, said he and others preferred to take the issue up after the victims were buried, likely after July 4.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Republican majority leader, said senators should ask, “What would ‘Clem’ do?” referencing Pinckney’s nickname.

“I can’t forgive him,” Peeler said of the gunman. “I hope one day I’m there. I can’t forgive him for what he’s done, for what he’s done to this state. … Don’t let this stain fester. As soon as we can let’s have a vote on this matter and move on.”

The fight in South Carolina was also reverberating across the country, reaching into businesses and other state governments. On Tuesday, Amazon, the online retail giant, said it was pulling merchandise with the Confederate flag. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)

This came a day after Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the United States, announced it would remove items bearing the flag from its stores and stop selling them online. Similarly, Sears said Tuesday it was going to stop selling such merchandise, while eBay released a statement saying it would “prohibit Confederate flags, and many items containing this image, because we believe it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”

The debate also extended to professional sports. NASCAR issued a statement saying they agreed that the flag in South Carolina should come down, adding that it would continue a policy banning “the use of the Confederate Flag symbol in any official NASCAR capacity.”

Discussions about the Confederate imagery also crept into other Southern states with remarkable speed. The top Republican in the Mississippi House of Representative said Monday night that his state should consider changing its flag, the last in the country that still bears the Confederate symbol.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”

In 2001, voters in a statewide referendum overwhelmingly chose to keep Mississippi’s flag, opting to stick with it by a two-to-one margin.

In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), said Tuesday he wants to phase out a state-sponsored license plate featuring an image of the Confederate flag. Kentucky Republicans have been arguing that a statue of Jefferson Davis inside the Capitol Rotunda should be moved.

Meanwhile, there was a heightened feeling in Columbia, transforming what is normally a sleepy Southern college town, particularly in the stifling summer months. Dozens of protesters remained on the capitol grounds Tuesday to keep the pressure on lawmakers.

Police blocked off portions of the city’s Main Street that leads to the statehouse and Confederate flag, which sits close to the road on capitol grounds. While dozens listened to flag protesters thundering over loudspeakers, a small group stood at the looming Confederate monument with signs in defiance of the current mood.

Mark Garman, a 56-year-old who lives in Columbia, stood carrying a sign that had both the American and Confederate flags on it. “Neither has ever stood for racism,” his sign said.

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“It was a tragedy, what happened in Charleston, without a doubt,” said Garman, who said he’s originally from New York. “The flag didn’t go to Charleston and commit the act, the gun didn’t go to Charleston and commit the act. People that have hate in their heart, they’re still going to have hate in their heart. People will grab ahold of anything and take it to an extreme.”

He said he believes the flag represents a crucial part of the state’s history, as did other counter-protesters at the monument.

Social video captured the scene outside the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C., where demonstrators rallied against the Confederate flag. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I don’t hate anybody,” said Ben Marcus, a 24-year-old groundskeeper who held South Carolina’s secessionist flag, which features a white star and upside down crescent moon on a red background. “I hate to see part of our history gone.”

In the wake of Haley’s announcement, lawmakers expressed confidence that despite procedural hurdles, the flag issue could be resolved by the end of the summer. The General Assembly was meeting Tuesday as part of an extended session, while a group of protesters gathered outside to rally in favor of taking down the flag.

Berman reported from Washington. DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.

[This post has been updated. First published: 1:02 p.m.]