South Carolina lawmakers agree to take up Confederate flag issue

By Michael Muskal and Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times

Chanting “Take it down,” hundreds of protesters rallied at the Capitol in South Carolina on Tuesday, calling for the removal of a Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds as lawmakers took the first steps to end the display.

The state House of Representatives approved a measure to take up the flag issue, but that debate will come after the budget is resolved in the special session that began Tuesday. It was unclear whether the Legislature would act before the funerals of those slain in last week’s attack on Emanuel AME Church.

The House held a moment of silence for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, who was killed in the shooting of nine people during a prayer meeting. His body is schedule to lie in state Wednesday at the Capitol.

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“I want you, the House of South Carolina, to put aside the partisan bickering and understand that all of us are human beings,” said state Rep. Joseph H. Neal, his voice trembling, after the vote was taken. “If ever there was going to be a day that South Carolina could rise and be the state that it says it is – this is the day.”

The House vote was 103-10. The state Senate has yet to take a vote.

The South Carolina law that allows the Confederate flag to fly on Statehouse grounds came under intense scrutiny after a white gunman invaded the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, killing the group of nine African-Americans. Dylann Roof, 21, who had boasted of racist beliefs and had posed in photographs with Confederate flags and symbols, is being held on nine murder charges.

“Never again may someone use that red rag to take people’s lives,” said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers, III, a pastor and official with the National Action Network, to thunderous applause at the rally. “Make this day, this day, the day the flag comes down.”

But even though top state politicians have reversed their position and have called for the removal of the battle banner, getting the law changed is proving time-consuming. Most observers expected the debate and final votes might take weeks.

State Rep. Harold Mitchell Jr., a Democrat from Spartanburg, told the crowd that his House would move quickly. “We do not need to wait until January,” he said. “It’s a time of mourning.”

For more than five decades, the Confederate flag has flown on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol. On Tuesday a steady swell of protesters gathered in front of the Statehouse, urging legislators to take down the emblem of the South’s war against the North.

“Talk has been had. We don’t need any more talking,” Rivers told the crowd. “All the points have been made. The governor has spoken. The flag ought to come down.”

After days of local and national pressure from activists who decry the Confederate symbols as racist, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday reversed her position and strongly called for removing the flag from the Capitol grounds. At the afternoon news conference, she was surrounded by politicians – white and black, Democratic and Republican – many of whom cheered as she spoke.

She noted that for many South Carolinians, the Confederate flag still represents noble traditions of heritage and duty. But for many others, it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”

“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it,” Haley said.

Both of the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, joined in calling for its removal. Graham, one of the dozen announced candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, had publicly defended flying the flag as recently as last week.

But that was before national political pressure began to build. Many conservative Republicans in recent days have rushed to return campaign contributions from a racist group whose ideology is believed to have helped shape Roof’s thoughts. Prominent Republicans including Mitt Romney said it was time to move the flag from the state grounds to a museum.

One particularly Southern sport is race car driving, which attracts many Confederate symbols on cars and spectators alike. On Tuesday, NASCAR, the ruling body of that sport, issued a statement Tuesday backing Haley’s position.

Haley’s announcement led to other actions in the South.

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, moved to banish the Confederate flag from one of that state’s license plates.

In Mississippi, state House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from that state’s flag. In Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans called for the removal of a bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from an alcove outside the state Senate’s chambers.

Wal-Mart announced Monday that it is removing any items from its store shelves and website that feature the Confederate flag. By Tuesday other companies including Sears and eBay also said they would stop selling Confederate flag items online.

Civil rights activists argue the flag has become a racist symbol, but there are many people in South Carolina who still support it as a symbol of the state’s heritage. In November, a poll by Winthrop University of 852 people found 42 percent of South Carolina residents strongly believed the flag should stay, while only 26 percent strongly believed it should be removed.

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