By Sarita Chourey –
COLUMBIA — Amid chants of “take it down” by thousands who gathered at the Statehouse to witness the last moments of the Confederate flag, South Carolina took a step toward healing from centuries of racial brutality and division.
Onlookers gathered in the withering heat spanned races, generations, income levels and zip codes Friday. Some recalled the pain of the Jim Crow era, while others, white and black teenagers, were dumbfounded that the flag had flown in modern-day America.
“In my view, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Johnson Pope, 17, a white Columbia resident, who carried an American flag.
“If it offends people, then they shouldn’t have it up in the first place.”
The flag reopened wounds in the wake of a shooting massacre that took the lives of nine African Americans, including Sen. Clementa Pinckney last month, after a white supremacist allegedly murdered them inside the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof was photographed posing with the Confederate flag.
Corporations and business groups called for the flag’s removal, and Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her position in defense of the flag and called for it to come down.
The banner was hoisted in the 1960s as the state’s protest of the Civil Rights movement.
The Legislature reached a compromise in 2000, which moved the flag from the dome to the grounds, where it flew until Friday. After the flag came down Friday, an advocacy nonprofit for the poor renewed its call for the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
“We cannot stop at removing the symbol,” said the Appleseed Legal Justice Center in a statement Friday.
“We must go on with the work and address the problems that many of our good people are facing every day.”
South Carolina lawmakers have writhed publicly over whether to lower the flag and place it in the Confederate Relic Room. For some, their reelection was at stake. That and other themes surfaced during that time:
When Jerry Govan was a youth in South Carolina, he and his friends noticed a pickup truck coming their way and flying a Confederate flag. Now a 53-year-old black Democrat in the S.C. House, Govan recalled that when the truck went past, a white man inside threw a bag of nails at them. Govan still bears the scars near his eye.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, 58, a black pastor from Richland County, remembered when he was first elected.
“Imagine a 34-year-old walking into this building and in the first floor lobby, there was a Confederate flag. On the dome of the Capitol there was a Confederate flag,” he said from the Senate floor.
“For a great deal of time, I would purposely miss the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance because it was so painful to put my hand over my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag and look at that same flag.”
Taking the flag down forced many elected officials — mostly Republicans but a few Democrats — to contemplate their political demise.
Rep. Neal Collins, a first-term Republican from Pickens County, decided to miss a flight in order to cast his vote in favor of taking the flag down. His first term could be his last, he mused.
“Should I have an opponent next year, I want them to be able to have this (video) clip,” he said from the House floor.
Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston, scolded his colleagues.
“For us to worry about being threatened politically? We need to quit worrying about June 2016 and let’s worry about June 2046 and what’s in the best interest of this state,” he said.
Bristling at the national media
The world was watching. But not everyone thought the world was getting a fair version of events.
The national media swarmed Columbia in the last week, to the resentment of some flag defenders. But lawmakers and political players who opposed the flag didn’t seem to mind. They seemed to relish opportunities to appear, with sweat-beaded brows, on MSNBC and other TV networks.
Among those who didn’t welcome the outsiders: Rep. Chris Corley, one of 20 House members who voted against the flag removal. Corley had introduced an amendment to replace the Confederate flag with “the unofficial flag of the South Carolina Republican Party” — a solid white flag of surrender.
“Since we’re so concerned with the national media, who is never going to treat us right, and voters who are never going to vote for us, and (we) have no concern for our constituents and what they want,” he said.
Rep. Eric Bedingfield, a Greenville County Republican who also voted against lowering the flag, was defiant.
“I grew up with that flag, yes, to the national media, as my heritage,” he said from the chamber floor.
After the vote, Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, made his feelings clear in a legislative update to constituents.
“The national press pounced on South Carolina,” he wrote. “They were surely disappointed when they found no riots, just prayerful and mourning citizens.”
Class and warfare
Some flag supporters in the Legislature pleaded with their colleagues to see things from their perspective: Their Confederate ancestors were poor. They lived in poverty on par with blacks at the time, they said.
“We didn’t all come from white plantation homes,” said Chris Corley, the 34-year-old lawmaker and attorney from Graniteville. He said his own ancestors would have been considered, “poor, white trash.”
They were yeoman farmers who didn’t even own land, he said, “almost slaves themselves,” who were called up to fight and die in the Civil War.
Rep. Mike Pitts, a chief flag defender in the General Assembly, spoke of the Confederate flag’s presence in his childhood, of being 13 before his family had indoor plumbing, and sharing meals and cotton fields with a black family. He also spoke of his grandmother.
“She was dirt poor,” he said.
“If the Lord didn’t shine on them a particular year, they didn’t eat.”