Three weeks after a racially motivated massacre in a black church in Charleston, S.C., the Confederate battle flag will no longer fly on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, following a bitter debate over its role as a symbol of racism and hate.
The shooting that left nine dead at Emanuel AME Church and subsequent images of the alleged gunman holding the battle flag set off a national debate about the flag’s meaning and history. On Thursday, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) signed legislation to remove the flag, which has flown over the capitol’s dome or on its grounds since 1961.
The furor over the flag rippled through the halls of Congress on Thursday when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called for a review of Confederate symbols and memorabilia, which is likely to include those on display in the Capitol.
Boehner was forced to halt consideration of a government funding measure after it became engulfed by the Confederate flag controversy and whether it was appropriate to display the flags at national cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried.
The dispute pitted Southern conservatives who asserted that the tradition was part of their heritage against members of the Congressional Black Caucus who view the flag as a symbol of slavery and oppression.
The heated tone on Capitol Hill stood in contrast to the jubilant, bipartisan scene nearly 500 miles to the south, in Columbia, S.C. There, flanked by Democratic and Republican leaders past and present, Haley declared it a “great day” for the state.
“This is a story about the history of South Carolina. And how the action of nine individuals laid out this long chain of events that forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness looks like,” she said, referring to the victims’ relatives who spoke at suspect Dylann Roof’s bond hearing.
The flag was scheduled to be lowered at 10 a.m. Friday and moved to a state museum for display.
On Thursday, the NCAA lifted a ban enacted in 2000 that has prevented the state from being considered to host championship games, and the NAACP said it will stop calling for a tourism and travel boycott of the state.
Lawmakers in the state House of Representatives slogged through more than 13 hours of debate Wednesday night and Thursday morning, at times becoming deeply emotional and tense. Efforts by Republicans to amend the bill threatened to derail the legislative process.
Both sides agreed to a compromise that allowed the bill to move forward without any changes. Just after 1 a.m. Thursday, lawmakers voted 94 to 20 in favor of the flag’s removal. Earlier in the week, the Senate swiftly debated the same proposal and overwhelmingly approved it.
As those final hours transpired, congressional Republicans stumbled into the heated flag debate through a series of miscalculations. That began with their decision late Wednesday to allow a House vote on an amendment that would have reaffirmed the ability to place the Confederate flag in national cemeteries as part of a once-a-year tradition in the Deep South.
House Democrats accused Republicans of catering to the large and powerful Southern conservative bloc. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to exploit the tragedy of the killings in Charleston and the decision by South Carolina lawmakers to remove the flag from the capitol.
Boehner tried to tamp down the dispute by announcing that he would create an informal bipartisan group to review all matters related to the display of Confederate memorabilia. He pulled the overall legislation, which would provide annual funds for the Interior Department, rather than hold a vote on the Confederate flag amendment.
That vote was originally set for late Thursday afternoon, nearly the exact time Haley signed legislation removing the flag.
Republicans leaders have tried to move beyond the old fights over the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the slaying of nine African-Americans inside the historic Charleston church. Boehner was among national Republican leaders who embraced Haley’s role in removing the flag, and he pointedly said Thursday that he did not believe Confederate flags should be displayed in national cemeteries.
“Listen, we all witnessed the people of Charleston and the people of South Carolina come together in a respectful way to deal with, frankly, what was a very horrific crime and a difficult issue with the Confederate flag,” Boehner told reporters. “I actually think it’s time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue. I do not want this to become some political football.”
Democrats responded by reintroducing a resolutionthat would have mandated the removal of Mississippi’s state flag from display on U.S. Capitol grounds because its design incorporates the Confederate battle flag. That resolution, offered by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was tabled on a mostly partisan vote that referred it to a committee.
Other Democrats have called for the removal of statues of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders that are prominently displayed in the Capitol. In floor speeches throughout the day, Democrats stood in front of an image of the Confederate flag on the House floor.
“The red in this flag is a painful reminder of the blood that was shed by African American slaves,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Southern Republicans said that their Democratic colleagues did not understand that they were trying to pay tribute to fallen Confederate soldiers who were not plantation owners.
“The majority of people that actually died in the Civil War on the Confederate side didn’t own slaves. These were people that were fighting for their states, and, you know, I don’t think they even had any thoughts about slavery,” said Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.).
He rejected the position of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil rights movement, who called the flag a symbol of oppression.
“Does he understand where I’m coming from?” Westmoreland said. “Well, if I believe it comes from heritage, does he understand where I’m coming from?”
The flag dispute in cemeteries mostly applies to two in the Deep South — the national cemeteries in Vicksburg, Miss., and Andersonville, Ga., where Union and Confederate soldiers are buried. Once a year, on Confederate Memorial Day, volunteers traditionally place the Confederate flag on the graves of rebel soldiers.
Haley’s signature concluded a more-than-15-year effort to deal with the issue in South Carolina. The flag will become “an object of moral introspection,” said NAACP President Cornell Brooks, “not a symbol of exclusion, bigotry, bias and hate.”
“The flag should be studied, the flag should not be honored,” he said, noting that the organization will move swiftly to end its boycott.