SC lawmakers agree to debate removing Confederate flag

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South Carolina Lawmakers Move Forward With Confederate Flag Debate

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AP) -- Chanting "bring it down, bring it down," hundreds gathered in Tuesday's sweltering heat to demand the removal of the Confederate battle flag from outside South Carolina's Statehouse, while lawmakers inside took their first step toward removing the historic but divisive symbol.

Within minutes of convening a special session on the budget Tuesday, legislators agreed to debate the flag removal once the final budget is approved during another session later this summer.

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 against the rebel standard.

Haley's reversal was prompted by last week's massacre of nine black people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston in what authorities describe as a racial hate crime. Her move 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.

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SC lawmakers agree to debate removing Confederate flag
Theron Foster, of Columbia, S.C., protests outside the South Carolina statehouse, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, in Columbia, where the House was debating a Senate bill that would remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Hundreds of people gather for a protest rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina on June 20, 2015. The racially divisive Confederate battle flag flew at full-mast despite others flying at half-staff in South Carolina after the killing of nine black people in an historic African-American church in Charleston on June 17. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white male suspected of carrying out the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church bloodbath, was one of many southern Americans who identified with the 13-star saltire in red, white and blue. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 23: Ernest Branch (L) hugs a man carrying a Confederate flag (who didn't want to provide his name) saying, that he respects the fact the guy likes the flag but that he is against the flag flying on the Capitol grounds on June 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The South Carolina governor Nikki Haley asked that the flag be removed afer debate over the flag flying on the capitol grounds was kicked off after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hugs U.S. Congressman James Clyburn after she called for legislators to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House during a press conference on Monday, June 22, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (Tim Dominick/The State/TNS via Getty Images)
Protesters hold signs as they chant during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C, have reignited calls for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia to come down. Rallies are being held, and politicians have joined the chorus of voices calling for its removal — an opinion that has carried political risks in the state in the past. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 23: Asha Jones attends a protest in support of a Confederate flags removal from the South Carolina capitol grounds on June 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The South Carolina governor Nikki Haley asked that the flag be removed after debate over the flag flying on the capitol grounds was kicked off after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 23: Sonya Anderson asks for the removal of the confederate flag as she attends a protest in support of a confederate flags removal from the South Carolina capitol grounds on June 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The South Carolina governor Nikki Haley asked that the flag be removed after debate over the flag flying on the capitol grounds was kicked off after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 20: Anti-Confederate flag protesters demonstrate outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church where nine people were shot to death earlier this week June 20, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspect Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested and charged in the killing of nine people during a prayer meeting in the church, one of the nation's oldest black churches in the South. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A man wears a t-shirt representing the Confederate flag as hundreds of people gather for a protest rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina on June 20, 2015. The racially divisive Confederate battle flag flew at full-mast despite others flying at half-staff in South Carolina after the killing of nine black people in an historic African-American church in Charleston on June 17. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white male suspected of carrying out the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church bloodbath, was one of many southern Americans who identified with the 13-star saltire in red, white and blue. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters hold signs during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C, have reignited calls for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia to come down. Rallies are being held, and politicians have joined the chorus of voices calling for its removal — an opinion that has carried political risks in the state in the past. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Christian Mergner, of Columbia, S.C., holds a sign during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C, have reignited calls for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia to come down. Rallies are being held, and politicians have joined the chorus of voices calling for its removal — an opinion that has carried political risks in the state in the past. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters hold signs as they chant during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C, have reignited calls for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia to come down. Rallies are being held, and politicians have joined the chorus of voices calling for its removal — an opinion that has carried political risks in the state in the past. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Kirt Moody, of Columbia, S.C. holds a sign during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. For years, South Carolina lawmakers refused to revisit the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds, saying the law that took it off the dome was a bipartisan compromise, and renewing the debate would unnecessarily expose divisive wounds. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Lennos Lemon, 12, sits on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Salley Rickenbacker, of Columbia, S.C., holds an U.S flag as the Confederate flag flies nearby during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 22: The Confederate flag flies on the Capitol grounds after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for the Confederate flag to be removed on June 22, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Debate over the flag flying at the Capitol was again ignited off after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Protesters stand near a flying Confederate flag during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters holds signs during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters close their eyes in silent prayer as they stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters stand around a flying Confederate flag during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday, June 20, 2015. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters stand near a flying Confederate flag during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters holds signs during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Mariangeles Borghini holds a burned Confederate flag during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters hold signs in front of the Confederate flag during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Protesters stand around a flying Confederate flag during a rally to take down the flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Sheila DiCioccio holds a sign during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Tom Dombrowski, left, of Charleston, S.C., holds a sign during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Landrum, said it's past time for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds after nine people were killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
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Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin called it impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic this week, "out of respect for the services that will be held."

On Wednesday, mourners are expected to file past the coffin of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney beneath the Statehouse dome. On Friday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral 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."

During the rally, a shouting match broke out at the base of the Confederate monument where South Carolina's rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole, in full view of 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."

The only Republican to speak at Tuesday's anti-flag rally, Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, said he supports removing the flag and believes it will happen, but he asked the crowd to respect 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.

State GOP Chairman Matt Moore said he believes both parties are committed to bringing it down.

"With enough political will anything can be done," Moore said. "There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds."

Haley's announcement came only days after authorities announced murder charges against Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man who told a friend that he had a plan to do something "for the white race" and posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.

Leaders in other states swiftly followed suit: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for removing the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, and in 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. And Kentucky's Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, called for removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from his Capitol's rotunda.

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."

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.

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Drew reported from Charleston, South Carolina.

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