South Carolina lawmakers took their first step toward removing the Confederate battle flag from their Statehouse grounds Tuesday as protesters outside demanded the flag come down in response to the massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston.
Meanwhile, officials in other states and Washington, D.C., took action to drop or reexamine the display of Confederate symbols. And several big businesses announced they would no longer sell merchandise with the Confederate flag.
In South Carolina, House Speaker Jay Lucas described the killings as "terrorizing act of violence shook the very core of every South Carolinian."
The measure enabling lawmakers to debate the flag removal later this summer needed two-thirds approval. It passed the House by a vote of 103-10. The Senate later approved it with a voice vote.
The first senator to call for moving the flag to a museum was the son of South Carolina's most powerful politician of the last century, U.S. senator and segregationist standard-bearer Strom Thurmond.
State Sen. Paul Thurmond, a Charleston Republican, said he loves his ancestors, but he supports moving the flag to a museum. But he said he isn't proud of a heritage that included holding people in bondage, and he wants to send a message to anyone who might proudly display the banner before committing racial hate crimes.
"I can respond with love, unity and kindness," Thurmond said, "and maybe show others that the motivations for a future attack of hate will not be tolerated, will not result in a race war, will not divide us, but rather strengthen our resolve to come together."
Gov. Nikki Haley's unexpected call for the flag to come down also reverberated around the South Tuesday, as a growing number of other politicians announced their own actions against the rebel standard.
Haley's decision, prompted by the massacre inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, suddenly eroded the position many southern lawmakers have held onto throughout their careers: that debating the status of the Confederate flag would be too racially divisive today.
"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 Monday. But she said that for many others, it is a "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past," and argued that removing it from such a public space will help South Carolina come together and heal.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said before Tuesday's session that it would be impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic while funeral services are being held. On Wednesday, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney's coffin will be on display in the Statehouse Rotunda. On Friday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver his eulogy at the "Mother Emanuel" church in Charleston.
But Najee Washington, granddaughter of victim Ethel Lance, said swift action would mean a lot to her family.
"That would be great," said Washington, 23, who lived with Lance. "It's just a part of the past that we don't need to be reminded of every day."
Dylann Storm Roof faces murder and gun charges in the church attack. The 21-year-old white man had told a friend that he would do something "for the white race" and posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.
Hundreds gathered in sweltering heat outside the capitol earlier Tuesday, chanting "Bring it down, Bring it down," next to the Confederate monument where South Carolina's rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole, in full view of the U.S. and state flags flying at half-staff.
"This flag is heritage. If you take it down you won't get rid of racism. The flag didn't pull the trigger. The flag didn't kill anybody. That was an individual that did that," said Mark Garman, 56, of Eastover, one of a handful of flag supporters in the crowd of hundreds.
Tom Clements knows this heritage — he brought a poster displaying details and photos about his great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy, and three great-great uncles who died for the South. He said he loved the Confederate flag growing up, but now sees it as a symbol of oppression.
"The racists took over the memories of the Confederacy," said Clements, who joined the chants of "Bring it down."
Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort told the crowd that he supports removing the flag and believes it will happen, but asked for respect for all views as the debate begins.
"There are some very good and decent people in up there in the General Assembly without a racist bone in their body who revere that flag. And I think it is important ... that we let them have their say," Davis said.
Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers under the terms of the 2000 deal that moved a square version of the flag to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front.
"With enough political will, anything can be done," said State GOP Chairman Matt Moore. "There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds."
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument out front in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina since 2001.
For years, South Carolina lawmakers sought shelter in that bipartisan compromise, saying that renewing the debate would unnecessarily revive painful divisions. Nationally, politicians said it was up to the state to decide. But after Haley's announcement Monday, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the call to remove it.
Reaction Across the Nation
Leaders in other states and Washington, D.C., have swiftly followed suit:
- Mississippi — House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag.
- Tennessee — Both Democrats and Republicans said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must be removed from the Senate.
- Virginia — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday ordered the replacement of vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag, saying the banner is "hurtful" for too many people.
- Kentucky — Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, called for removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol's rotunda.
Alabama — Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery said Tuesday that the state should remove Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds. Holmes says he will file a legislative resolution to remove the flags, which surround an 88-foot tall Alabama Confederate Monument that was erected in 1898.
Maryland — Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he wanted to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park. Kamenetz said he directed county officials to start looking at changing it from the name of the Confederate general last month, and he issued a statement reiterating that point Monday, shortly after Haley's announcement in South Carolina. A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she supported changing the name and is willing to work with the county to find an appropriate new one.
Washington, D.C. — In the Capitol's Statuary Hall, where each state gets to appoint two statues, Jefferson Davis stands as a representative of Mississippi — among several statues of Confederate figures. The Statuary Hall statues are selected by states, and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that rule puts them out of his purview. Nonetheless, "I think that it would be important that we look at some of the statues that are here," Reid said.
Texas — The University of Texas president said Tuesday that the school will establish a panel of students, faculty and alumni to determine what to do with a statue of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis. Student leaders have asked to have it removed from the Austin campus. Earlier in the day, vandals sprayed graffiti on the pedestal of the century-old statue. An online petition recently was launched to have it removed and placed in a museum. But Davis' great-great grandson, Bertram Hayes-Davis, says his ancestor was a statesman with a broad list of accomplishments who's being unfairly demonized.
Also in Texas, last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the state was within its rights to refuse to issue personalized license plates showing the Confederate flag. The court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected a challenge on the grounds of freedom of speech. The Sons of Confederate Veterans had sought a Texas plate bearing its logo with the battle flag.
North Carolina — A spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory said the Republican plans to ask the General Assembly to pass a law that would discontinue the use of the Confederate flag on specialty license plates for the Confederate Veterans.
Big businesses also took action: Wal-Mart, e-Bay and Sears Holding Corp. announced they would no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, which e-Bay called a "contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism."
But even as those national retailers were pulling Confederate flags from shelves and websites, manufacturers that produce the divisive symbol say that sales are now surging.
"I don't sell the Confederate flag for any specific group, I just sell the flag," said Kerry McCoy, owner and president of Arkansas' FlagandBanner.com. "This is America. Everybody has a right to be represented whether you are a history buff or a nut."
McCoy said her company expects to sell about 50 of the flags over the next week. That's about half of what they typically sell in a year.
Pete Van de Putte said sales of Confederate flags are surging at his Dixie Flag Manufacturing in San Antonio, Texas. He said his company sold more flags in the last couple days than it would have typically sold over a couple of months.
"Any time there is a controversy about any flag, we sell more flags," he said. "It's not like selling tires or washing machines.
"When people come in here, they're buying their national pride, their ethnic origin ... so people are naturally passionate about the product."
Both Van de Putte and McCoy say American flags are their most popular products. McCoy said most of the Confederate flags she sells are lower-quality items not meant to fly outside every day. She said residents of California easily buy the most of any state.
"They're more for a dorm room or a gag gift," she said. "I don't know anybody that flies the Confederate battle flag on their flag pole outside their business. I mean, who would do that?"