By Hastings Wyman –
The murder in Charleston, South Carolina, of nine African Americans in an African Methodist Episcopal Church has created a resurgence of the effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from a monument in front of the state capitol. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and the state’s two US Senators, Lindsey Graham (R) and Tim Scott (R), as well as a number of Republican legislators, including state Sen. Paul Thurmond, son of the late US Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), along with all of the state’s Democratic lawmakers, have urged the flag’s removal
But while sentiment appears to be moving swiftly in favor of removing the flag, there is considerable division within South Carolina over the issue, and the flag’s removal is not a done-deal. According to a survey of the state’s registered voters, taken last week by OpinionSavvy Poll, 50% favor removing the flag to 46% who oppose taking it down. Among whites, 53% oppose removing the flag, to 44% who favor taking it down.
The state Senate, according to a Post & Courier survey of its members last week, has a two-thirds majority favoring removal of the flag from the Confederate soldiers’ monument at the front of the Capitol. The House, however, is a different story, with 64 favoring the flag’s removal to 8 opposed, with 51 undecided or not responding. The House did vote 103 to 10 to take up the flag issue, a prerequisite to removing the flag. Most of those voting no were from the northwest corner of the state, around Greenville and Anderson, centers of support for Tea Party conservatism. These representatives reported that by a two-to-one margin, their constituents who have contacted them have urged them to leave the flag in place.
State Rep. Rick Quinn (R), who was active in 2000 in the negotiations that removed the flag from the dome of the capitol to the soldiers’ memorial in front of the building, says that some people see it as a racist symbol, “but a significant part of the population doesn’t see it as hatred, but as a soldiers’ banner.” Indeed, there are reportedly some 7,000 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the state. Quinn adds, “In my view, it’s going to come down, but we have to be respectful of that point of view. There are a lot of strong feelings on the issue… Hopefully we can come up with a solution respectful to both sides.” One such solution would be to move the flag to the Confederate Relic Room in the state’s history museum, displayed in a respectful manner.
“I anticipate that good things will come about as a result of this dreadful event,” says state Rep. Walton McLeod (D). The legislature “is on the path to put the flag in the Confederate Relic Room, where it used to be” before being placed atop the Capitol dome in 1962. He noted that he had just received a phone call from a history buff in his county with the message, “It’s time to change the flag.” The likelihood is that the legislature will take up the flag issue after the July 4 weekend, either the week of July 6 or 13. McLeod does caution, however, that “our state still loves to thumb its nose at the federal
government,” noting that resistance to taking the flag down “is part history and part defiance.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D), an African-American, told the Post & Courier, “As part of the healing of this, I’m saying to supporters of the flag: Let’s put it in the Confederate Relic Room. I’d love to see it happen. But I’m not holding my breath.”
There is concern among some that removal of the flag from the statehouse grounds will be only the beginning of a series of divisive controversies over Confederate memorials across the state. Richard Quinn, a political consultant based in Lexington County and the father of Rep. Quinn, said some folks “are worried this will lead to a jihad against street names and memorials of history,” with little respect for the past. He noted with dismay that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) “just ripped it down.”
Charles Waring, editor and publisher of the Charleston Mercury, says he has spoken with “at least a dozen of leaders of heritage groups… They want a reasonable debate,” but he doubts that that is possible. “The social media, the national media and activists have worked up a political firestorm.”
Waring also says that as a result of the killings, “There’s been an outpouring of comity. There’s an undercurrent of respect for those who are different,” resulting in “tears, sympathy, resources given, a lot of pulpit time, and a lot of very devout Christians being proud of their white and black friends.” He adds, “People are hurting, and they think (removing the flag) will help.” But, Waring says, the Charleston Mercury, when it goes to press this week, “will be asking for restraint” on the flag issue.
Another theme expressed in the wake of the killings is relief that Charlestonians of both races have avoided resorting to violence-producing protests. Scott Buchanan, a political science professor at The Citadel in Charleston, says that since the murders “for the most part, things have been very peaceful; ‘calm’ is the word people use. People thought the mayor and city as a whole handled it well.” So far, the only disturbances to the peace have been a march by members of the New Black Panthers and the desecration of several Confederate monuments.
Whether Saturday’s incident, in which an African-American woman scaled the pole and removed the Confederate banner from atop the statehouse monument will impact the debate remains to be seen.
Shortly after the end of the War Between the States, the name for the Civil War favored by many Southerners, Father Abram Joseph Ryan, a Roman Catholic priest who had been a Confederate army chaplain, wrote a poem, The Conquered Banner, that became popular throughout the South and much of the nation. The last verse reads in part,
Furl that banner, softly, slowly …
Touch it not – unfold it never,
Let it droop there, furled forever.
Maybe, some 150 years after the end of that bloody war, fought to defend slavery as well as to obtain Southern independence, the conquered banner will at last be furled. Stay tuned.