By Sarita Chourey –
In an historic move, the South Carolina Senate has voted to take down the Confederate battle flag that flies on the Statehouse grounds.
After hours of floor speeches and a handful of ill-fated amendments by flag defenders, the bill to remove the banner, S. 897,received a 37-3 vote. Bill sponsor Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, walked his colleagues through his experiences leading up to his introduction of the legislation.
Sheheen recalled meeting with white Hilton Head Island business leaders after he had called for the Confederate flag to betaken off the S.C. Statehouse grounds.
And one of the businessmen wasn’t happy about that.
“Why in the world would you have brought up the Confederate Battle Flag?” Sheheen remembered the man asking him.
“It just stirs things up and makes the national media pay attention to us. We don’t need that.”
Sheheen, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, had called for the flag’s removal at that time.
He noted Monday that Gov. Nikki Haley, who had been running for reelection, had mocked him for it. She has since changed her position and joined others’ calls for the flag to come down. The memories surfaced Monday, when the Senate began debating the bill, an event that drew national civil rights leader JesseJackson to the South Carolina Capitol. The flag was raised in the 1960s as a way to protest the Civil Rights movement, and only 15 years ago lawmakers reached a compromise that moved the flag from the Statehouse dome to the grounds.
On Monday, Sheheen also shared an email he’d received after nine African Americans, including Sen. Clementa Pinckney, were gunned down in their Charleston church, allegedly by a white supremacist. Days after the massacre last month, the woman emailed Sheheen to tell him the shooting was not related to the Confederateflag. “It’s about the entitlement given to minorities, and folks are getting tired of it,” she wrote. Dylann Roof, the white 21-year-old who has been charged with nine counts of murder, was found to be posing with the Confederateflag in photos. Lawmakers acknowledged it was OK for individuals to perceive the flag in vastly different lights. Even the outcome of the Civil War was viewed according to one’s race, said one lawmaker. Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said that in 1860, South Carolina’s population was 57 percent black. “As far as they were concerned, they won the war,” because they were set free, he said. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, has been one of the strongest defenders of the Confederate flag. On Monday he tried to convince his colleagues to put the question to a non-binding voter referendum.
But the amendment failed. Bright said the climate was emotionally charged in the wake of the church massacre.
“I’m more against taking it down in this environment than any other time,” he said. “I believe that we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did, on people that hold their southern heritage high, and I don’t think that’s fair.” Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, had sided with Bright, whose floor speech also included statements against abortion rights,gay marriage and other topics. “I think we’d do well to listen (not just to boardrooms) but to hearth and home” of the citizens, said Verdin.
But after the amendment fell, Verdin offered his own to allow the flag to be hoisted on Confederate Memorial Day, May 10.It, too, fizzled.
Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, along with Verdin and Bright made up the “no” votes on S. 897. Peeler said removing the flag wouldn’t change history and compared it to taking a tattoo off a corpse in order to change the deceased’s obituary. Similar proposals to remove the divisive banner have been introduced in the House.
The pending third vote by the Senate on S. 897 is considered ceremonious.