COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s governor signed a law Thursday relegating the Confederate flag to the state’s “relic room” more than 50 years after the rebel banner was raised at the Statehouse to protest the civil rights movement.
Compelled to act by the slaughter of nine African-Americans in their church, Gov. Nikki Haley praised lawmakers for acknowledging that the long-celebrated symbol is too painful and divisive to keep promoting.
“The Confederate flag is coming off the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse,” Haley said. “We will bring it down with dignity and we will make sure it is stored in its rightful place.”
South Carolina’s leaders first flew a Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It remained there to represent official opposition to the civil rights movement.
Mass protests against the flag decades later led to a compromise in 2000 with lawmakers who insisted that it symbolized Southern heritage and state’s rights. They agreed then to move it to a 30-foot pole next to a Confederate monument out front.
But even from that lower perch, the flag was clearly visible in the center of town, and flag supporters remained a powerful bloc in the state.
The massacre 22 days ago of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church suddenly changed this dynamic, not only in South Carolina but around the nation.
Police said the killings were racially motivated. By posing with the Confederate flag before the shootings, suspect Dylann Storm Roof, who has not yet entered a plea to nine counts of murder, showed that the flag also has symbolized white supremacy and racial oppression.
Haley moved first, calling lawmakers to vote the flag down. Very quickly thereafter, Republican leaders in other states who have long cultivated the votes of Confederate flag supporters announced that Civil War symbols no longer deserve places of honor.
“These nine pens are going to the families of the Emanuel Nine,” Haley said after signing the bill into law. “Nine amazing individuals who have forever changed South Carolina history.”
The governor said the way the victims welcomed the gunman into their Bible study — and the forgiveness their survivors expressed to the suspect when he was arraigned in court days two days later — have inspired change nationwide.
“Nine people took in someone who did not look like them or act like them. And with true love and true faith and acceptance, they sat and prayed with him for an hour. That love and faith was so strong that it brought grace to them and the families,” Haley said.
“We saw the families show the world what true grace and forgiveness look like,” she added. “That set off an action of compassion by people in South Carolina and all over this country. They stopped looking at their differences and started looking at their similarities.”
The flag removal bill passed easily in the Senate, where the Rev. Pinckney served, but was stalled in the House as members proposed dozens of amendments. Any changes could have delayed the flag’s removal and blunted momentum for change.
The debate stretched on for more than 13 hours as representatives shared anger, tears and memories of their ancestors. Flag supporters talked about grandparents passing down family treasures. Some lamented that the flag had been “hijacked” or “abducted” by racists.
Rep. Mike Pitts recalled playing with a Confederate ancestor’s cavalry sword while growing up, and said the flag reminds him of dirt-poor Southern farmers who fought Yankees, not because they hated blacks, but because their land was being invaded.
Black Democrats, frustrated at being asked to honor those who fought for slavery, offered their own family histories.
Rep. Joe Neal traces his ancestry to four brothers, brought to America in chains and bought by a slave owner named Neal who pulled them apart from their families.
“The whole world is asking, is South Carolina really going to change, or will it hold to an ugly tradition of prejudice and discrimination and hide behind heritage as an excuse for it?” Neal said.
Rep. Jenny Horne, a white Republican who said she is a descendent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, scolded her party members for stalling.
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday,” she shouted. “For the widow of Sen. Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury and I will not be a part of it!”
The bill ultimately passed by a 93-27 vote — well above the two-thirds supermajority needed to make changes to the state’s “heritage” symbols.
“I saw passions get hot, I saw passions get low, but I saw commitment never-ending,” Haley said, describing the debate. “What we saw in that swift action by both the House and Senate was that we saw members start to see what it looks like to be in another’s shoes.”
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