An enduring icon of the Confederacy is beginning to disappear.
At a packed ceremony on Thursday, Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds three weeks after a gunman shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston. Investigators describe the suspect as a white supremacist.
The shock of those deaths June 17, made more disturbing by photos of the suspect proudly holding that battle flag, prompted a national reexamination of the extent to which Confederate tributes, despised by many black Americans, penetrate public life.
FOR THE RECORD:
Confederate flag: An article in the July 10 Section A about the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's Statehouse misidentified a doctor memorialized with a bronze bust as J. James Marion. His name was James Marion Sims. Also, the article said the doctor had used enslaved African American women as experimental subjects, often without the use of anesthesia. The story should have said this was criticism leveled at Sims decades after his work. Medical ethicists continue to debate whether his methods were proper, and whether anesthesia was widely enough available to have been used in his procedures. —
The legislation Haley made into law came after days of dramatic action in the Statehouse, hours of fiery pleas and angry demands by lawmakers — with Wednesday’s debate drifting into the wee hours of Thursday.
“I’m starting to understand how Lee felt at Appomattox,” one South Carolina Republican, state Rep. Michael A. Pitts, muttered to fellow lawmakers Wednesday night as they repeatedly shot down his attempts to derail the bill.
The nation watched, and acted.
In Washington on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives fell into an uproar as Democrats and Republicans battled over a budget amendment to ban displays of the Confederate flag in national parklands.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the City Council to relocate four prominent monuments and rename the Jefferson Davis Parkway after someone other than the slavery-defending Confederate president.
In Long Beach, an elementary school brought the wrath of state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who was appalled that it is named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Glazer introduced a bill this week that would ban naming such local and state properties after Confederate leaders.
During the final marathon debate in South Carolina’s House of Representatives, some white Republican lawmakers defended the flag as a symbol of their heritage. They downplayed slavery’s role and said their ancestors were defending their state against a northern invader.
That drew a passionate rebuke from one Republican, Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a white lawyer who said her ancestor was Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. She condemned the flag as a symbol of hate.
“I’m sorry, I have heard enough about heritage,” Horne told her colleagues. “Remove this flag, and do it today, because this issue is not getting any better with age.”
As lawmakers ultimately guided the bill toward a final approval of 94 to 20, one Republican, Rep. Christopher A. Corley, sarcastically waved a small white flag at his colleagues and suggested making it the unofficial symbol of the GOP.
By Thursday morning, Haley had pens at the ready, using nine of them, one for each of the families of the nine victims who were gunned down inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. She called them “nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina’s history.”
On Friday morning, the flag comes down.
The criticism of Confederate statues and the countless buildings and roads named after Confederate leaders has raised philosophical questions about the difference between honoring and remembering, as officials decide which memorials should be purged.
Three of the New Orleans monuments cited by Landrieu depict Confederate leaders. The fourth is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument, which honors white supremacists who rioted in 1874.
“This is about more than the men represented in these statues,” Landrieu said in an announcement. “This discussion is about whether these monuments, built to reinforce the false valor of a war fought over slavery, ever really belonged in a city as great as New Orleans whose lifeblood flows from our diversity and inclusiveness.”
Landrieu added, “Supremacy may be a part of our past, but it should not be part of our future.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who banned Confederate license plates after the church massacre, said Thursday that removing all Confederate history would be “political correctness run amok.” He rejected calls to remove from Maryland’s Statehouse grounds the statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision that held that slaves had no legal rights. Hogan said it was “part of our history.”
Carole Emberton, a professor of history at the University at Buffalo who specializes in the Civil War, said the future of the Confederate flag as an official emblem was in the biggest jeopardy.
“But I don’t think we’re going to see a mass movement to remove questionably historical memorials and monuments,” she said. “It’s just not practical. You can’t throw a stone in parts of the South without hitting one.”
Emberton said she didn’t think it was a good idea to “erase” the history of slavery and the Civil War. “Many of these monuments give people a chance to talk about that history,” she said. “I just think people are going to be approaching them differently — hopefully with more questions and more circumspection.”
On the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina’s battle history is tended almost as delicately as the lush, manicured gardens shaded by magnolia, crepe myrtle and live oak trees. Scores of monuments dot these grounds honoring soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and the Revolutionary War. Yet many of the most prominent are devoted to figures from the Civil War and Jim Crow era.
Off in a remote corner, under a cluster of live oaks, Michelle Bethel, 46, a black homeless woman, stretched out Thursday afternoon on a platform holding up a bronze bust of J. James Marion, erected in 1929. A pioneering surgeon who furthered the field of gynecology, Marion used enslaved African American women as experimental subjects, often without administering anesthesia.
“I know he was a doctor, but I don’t know the history,” Bethel said with a shrug as she took in Marion, pensive in a three-piece suit with bow tie. “I don’t have any other place to go. I’m just looking for a shady place to rest.”
State Rep. Joseph H. Neal, a black Democrat whose ancestors were brought to South Carolina as slaves, has particular concerns about the statue of a resolute-looking Benjamin Tillman. An inscription eulogizes Tillman as a patriot, statesman, governor and U.S. senator who was “the friend and leader of the common people.”
“He built his political career on a call for the genocide of black people in South Carolina,” Neal said in an interview Thursday. “He said, ‘Kill ’em all.’”
In 2008, Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford, now House minority leader, tried unsuccessfully to have the Tillman statue taken down.
Tillman also advocated repealing the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guaranteed blacks the right to vote, and was a member of an all-white militia responsible for lynchings.
Neal doesn’t want to remove the statue. He would rather add a placard that accurately reflects Tillman’s legacy as “a monster.”
“I’m not in favor of hiding history and sanitizing it,” Neal said. “I think we need to do the reverse and tell the truth about who we are. Because if you think about it, it’s actually sanitized now.... We could transform these monuments into educational opportunities.”
Rodney Miller, 48, a black plumber sitting on a wooden bench beneath Tillman during his lunch break, also opposed removing the statue.
“No! This was just another guy, just another racist,” Miller said. “The flag is what matters because it was picked up as a banner of hate.”
In either case, Tillman was “irrelevant,” Miller said with a dismissive wave of his Styrofoam cup. “You can’t find every sculpture of a slave owner, everyone who owned a plantation. There wouldn’t be anything left.”
Pauletta Jones, 57, a mediation coordinator who is African American, walked to the Statehouse after work to get a photo of the flag before it comes down, which she called “one of the greatest things that ever happened.”
However, Jones, who marched against the flag in 2000, did not think the Confederate memorial, or any of the other statues on the grounds, should come down.
“The statues are not thrown in our face like the flag,” she said as she looked up at a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers.
“They represent history and we can’t change that,” Jones said. “If you start doing that, you’re going to have to change all the street names. We’re not all about that.”
Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Jarvie from Columbia. Times staff writer Michael Muskal and the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.