The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

6 key moments from the South Carolina Senate’s strikingly blunt Confederate flag debate

South Carolina lawmakers considered legislation Monday to remove the Confederate battle flag from state house grounds. (Video: Reuters)

South Carolina lawmakers are having an incredibly honest debate about race relations and the Confederate flag's place in their state right now.

On Monday morning, the state Senate gaveled into session to debate a bill to take the Confederate flag off state house grounds. It's the first of several steps toward lowering the flag, which remained flying high after a white man killed nine black church members in a racially motivated shooting in Charleston.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for the flag's removal days after the June 17 killings, and a wave of Republican lawmakers inside South Carolina and outside the state have joined her.

[The looming demise of the Confederate flag, in 7 steps]

But a 2000 compromise to move the flag from the actual dome of the capitol to a Confederate war memorial on state grounds nearby means only the state legislature can remove the flag.

Despite the high threshold for removal (two-thirds of the legislature) and previously failed attempts to take the flag down, this time around appears to be different. The Charleston Post and Courier reports that lawmakers have the two-thirds majority they need to lower the flag, and it all could be done as soon as Thursday. The Senate overwhelmingly voted in preliminary votes Monday to take down the flag and is expected to make it final Tuesday.

So with much of the legislative contention out of the way, lawmakers spent their Monday reflecting on the flag's place in the state's history — and just how much healing on race the state has left to do. The debate was dominated early on by supporters of removing the flag.

Here are six themes that are developing from the conversation, as told through the powerful words of South Carolina's lawmakers.

1. Racism is still alive and well in South Carolina

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), who lost to Haley in both the 2010 and 2014 governor's races, has been an advocate for taking down the flag for several years now, and he introduced the bill this week that could finally do so.

But Sheheen wasn't always on the side of public opinion. He was often pushing against it. He recalled a “heated debate” one year ago when he publicly campaigned outside the Confederate war memorial to take down the flag. A white woman walked up to him and said: “All you care about is black people and Mexicans.”

“The story made me look a little more carefully at what goes on in our state,” he said.

More recently, Sheheen said he got an e-mail from a constituent shortly after the Charleston shootings. Sheheen read it from the floor:

“It's not about the Confederate flag. It's about the entitlement given to minorities, and folks are getting tired of it.”

Sheheen paused for effect. Then he used that e-mail to make the core of his argument for taking down the flag:

“That's days after nine people are murdered because their skin was dark. What happened, happened in our state. There's a quiet bigotry that still exists, and if those of us who are white don't say anything … then we're part of the problem.”

The flag, he said, “is one small step that reduces the culture of division.”

The controversy over the fate of the Confederate battle flag flying in South Carolina goes to the state’s legislators this week. (Video: Reuters)

2. The flag doesn't mean the same thing to everyone

During the Civil War, South Carolina was 57 percent black, noted state Sen. Darrell Jackson (D), who is African American. Those people — and their descendants — did not view the flag with the same reverence as many white South Carolinians do. Keeping it on state grounds is projecting only one vision of the Confederacy onto everyone else in this state, he argued.

“When I see a Confederate soldier, I don't get goosebumps and feel all warm and fuzzy,” Jackson said. “I respect the fact that you do. All I'm saying is, you can't force all of us to have a passion that some of you have about certain things.”

3. The flag was put up for the wrong reason

Republican state Sen. Larry Martin said he's heard from a lot of people who are opposed to taking it down, because if that happens, what will go next? Will Confederate buildings and roads be forced to be renamed?

That's the wrong way of looking at it, said Martin. South Carolinians have to be honest with themselves that the Confederate flag was hoisted over the capitol dome in the 1960s to honor the Civil War's 100th anniversary. It stayed up, though, for a much darker reason: To resist the civil rights movement.

“I remember well the adults in my life and what they had to say about [public school integration],” said Martin, who is white. “And it wasn't pleasant. You couldn't repeat it today, about what was being said about the fact that we were going to be going to school with black children. And the adults in my life didn't want to hear it. In my view, that's the reason the flag stayed up.”

4. The Charleston shootings changed everything

Martin didn't always see things this way. Before the Charleston shootings, he said he rarely thought twice about the implications of flying the flag on state house grounds. Now, he sees everything differently, he said.

“There is a huge difference between a [Confederate] monument and a flag fluttering in the wind on state grounds,” he said. “Until [the Charleston shootings] that so devastated our state and the country, I don't think I'd ever really appreciated that.

“To see that thing fluttering out there in a way that sort of gives some official status to it on behalf of the people of South Carolina, that doesn't represent all of the people of South Carolina, and we need to remember that.”

He added: “It isn't part of our future. It's part of our past. And I think we need to leave it at that.”

Other equally conservative lawmakers echoed Martin's sentiments.

"I'm going to vote to relocate it, to pursue peace and mutual affection like Paul preaches us to do," said Sen. George Campsen (R), whose district includes Charleston. His message was heavy on Biblical references as reasons to take down the flag. "I hate that it took a tragedy like this for me to really, fully understand it. But I do fully understand it, and it is utterly amazing. It is one of the greatest testimonies of Christian faith that I have experienced in my life."

5. The flag is being unfairly targeted for one man's actions

The morning was dominated by lawmakers urging the flag to be taken down. But after lawmakers recessed to lunch with members of their parties, opponents started speaking out.

State Sen. Lee Bright, a Republican, made the fundamentally opposite argument from those above: It's not pervasive racism that's South Carolina's problem, he said. It's one person with a gun that was South Carolina's problem.

“I am more against taking it down in this environment than any other time," he said. "We're placing blame on what one deranged lunatic did on people who hold their southern heritage high, and I don't think that's fair.”

Bright said he thinks most South Carolinians still want the flag to stay up, and he called for a statewide referendum on the flag's future that his colleagues rejected. Bright also got off track a bit by calling for lawmakers to try to oppose the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same sex marriage, decrying the White House being lit up in rainbow colors an "abomination."

[Did Republicans jump the gun on the Confederate flag?]

6. Taking down the flag isn't going to change anything about South Carolina's past

South Carolina's Senate Majority leader, Harvey Peeler (R), is probably the highest-profile opponent of taking down the flag. On Monday, he said removing one flag couldn't erase South Carolina's ties to the Confederacy.

"To remove the flag from the statehouse grounds and thinking it would change history would be like removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking that would change a loved one’s obituary," he said.

But most of his colleagues disagreed. By the end of the day, the Senate voted 37-3 on a preliminary vote to take down the flag, while soundly rejecting amendments to put the question to a statewide referendum or fly it just on Confederate Memorial day. They need a third vote Tuesday to make it official and pass the responsibility to South Carolina's  House.

Judging by the strong words from South Carolina lawmakers on both sides of the aisle we heard Monday, the flag would indeed appear likely to come down.