Troubled by church burnings, drive-by shootings and other signs of growing racial divisiveness, Gov. David Beasley called Tuesday night for hauling down the Confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol, the last statehouse from which it still flies.
But the gesture, which he has planned for days and had hoped would help unite the races, turned instead into an extraordinary and contentious debate--not just about the flag but about the meaning and morality of Southern history.
"My great-great grandfather and his two sons fought for the Confederacy," said Beasley, a Republican who supported keeping the flag flying when he was running for governor in 1994.
But while he wants to honor his ancestors, he said, he has come to believe that the flag that flies atop the Capitol must represent all of the people of the state. He urged blacks and whites to work toward a compromise in the Legislature to honor Confederate veterans without alienating citizens who view the flag as racist.
He made his appeal in an unusual speech broadcast across the state--"the single most important 15 minutes I've ever spent with you," he called it. But two high-ranking members of his own party followed it with televised speeches of their own in which they said, in effect, that they'd rather spit on their grandfathers' graves than see the flag come down.
Engaging in sometimes poetic flights of oratory, one of them, Atty. Gen. Charles Condon, decried the forces of revisionism and "political correctness" that would teach Southern children to be ashamed of their heritage.
"Before long our history will be rewritten," he said. "The children of South Carolina will be taught in the name of political correctness to be ashamed of the state's history."
Republican state Sen. Glenn McConnell of Charleston compared Beasley to ex-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose name became synonymous with appeasement after striking a deal with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hilter.
Nor has Beasley's proposal won universal support from African Americans who have been struggling for years to get the flag taken down. Last week, after the governor's intentions were first made public, Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., the newly elected president of the Columbia branch of the NAACP, said the governor's plan does not go far enough.
Beasley is proposing that the battle flag be moved to another "place of honor" on the Capitol grounds, beside a Confederate monument. Included in his plan, which must be approved by the Legislature, is a new law protecting all Confederate monuments and memorials, including street names, in the state.
"What they're proposing we don't consider a compromise," Randolph said. "Having the flag draped across the Confederate monument that already sits in front of the statehouse achieves what?"
Georgia and Mississippi long ago adopted state flags that incorporate the Confederate battle emblem. South Carolina is the only state, however, that continues to fly a flag representing the lost rebel cause. The practice began in 1962 on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, noted that 1962 was also in the heart of the civil rights movement. Lunch counter sit-ins had begun in South Carolina the previous year.
"The Legislature wanted to signal its resistance to federal civil rights overtures," Woodard said.
Robyn Zimmerman, spokesman for the governor, said Beasley's position on the flag changed after he appointed a 22-member race relations commission last year. A number of ugly incidents had inflamed racial tensions in the state and threatened to overshadow the stunning economic growth in the state.
The commission held 11 public hearings and is preparing recommendations to be presented to the governor by the end of the year. But one constant in their hearings was concern over the flag.
"In each hearing the flag controversy came up as a symbol of divisiveness," said Zimmerman.
Beasley's epiphany reportedly came after a night of prayer when, burdened by growing racial tensions, including a rise in hate crimes, he said he beseeched God for an answer. By morning, he said he knew what he should do.
The signs of growing racial animosity were apparent. Last month, heavily armed members of the Ku Klux Klan were arrested and charged with firing into a crowd of teenage African Americans in Pelion, S.C., wounding three of them. The klansmen had just attended a pro-flag rally.
In the same lowlands area of the state, members of the klan had confessed to burning black churches and beating and stabbing random African Americans. They told authorities that klan superiors had ordered the churches burned.
And in the eastern part of the state a controversial klan museum has opened in Laurens, S.C., provoking vandalism and much hand-wringing among town fathers.
"Hate-filled cowards cover their heads and meet under the cloak of night, scattering their seeds of racism in the winds of deceit about the flag and its meaning," Beasley said during his speech. "Extremism breeds extremism, and because of this, those of us that honor the flag are labeled racist by some."
In his response, Condon acknowledged the increase in racial tension, and called for the death penalty for murders committed during a hate crime.
"The Confederate flag did not burn those churches, the flag did not shoot those young men in Pelion, those crimes were committed by criminals," he said.
Zimmerman said the governor and business leaders were frustrated that such incidents were overshadowing the state's economic success. South Carolina, home of a new BMW plant, boasts the highest concentration of foreign investment in the nation and saw a record $5.4 billion in capital investment in 1995, she said.
Business leaders came out in favor of removing the flag several years ago. In 1994, a bill that would have done what Beasley now is proposing passed the state Senate but failed in the House. The national NAACP at one point threatened an economic and tourist boycott of the state unless the flag came down.
Condon referred to such activists as "merchants of hate" who would never be satisfied.
Once the flag is taken down, he said, "they would immediately start planning the next cause, the next outrage, the next demand."
Condon evoked the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the martyred civil rights leader, and said, "I believe we can achieve [his] dream in our lifetime, but a campaign to take down the Confederate flag is not the answer."
He also criticized the news media, which he accused of "driving a wedge of division" between the races by keeping the flag issue alive.
In reversing his stand on the flag, Beasley is taking a big political risk.
In neighboring Georgia, Gov. Zell Miller campaigned to remove the rebel emblem from the state flag and almost lost his bid for reelection in 1994 because of it.
In a nonbinding referendum of South Carolina Republicans in 1994, three of four voters said the flag should continue flying atop the Capitol.