Yielding to the pressure of protest marches and a growing national boycott, the South Carolina Senate acted Wednesday night to end the 38-year stalemate over the Confederate battle flag that flutters above the Statehouse dome.
The vote in the state Capitol in Columbia came 139 years to the day after Confederate forces shelled Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor and ignited the Civil War. Although the compromise still faces a routine procedural vote today and a full reading in the state House, the measure sailed through several 36-to-7 votes Wednesday night--a strong indication that the Rebel banner is on the verge of lowering.
“We are very close to making history,” said state Sen. J. Verne Smith, one of several die-hard flag supporters who ended years of opposition to back the compromise proposal.
The bill, backed by Gov. Jim Hodges, would move the Stars and Bars from its perch beneath the U.S. and state Palmetto flag above the dome and remove similar banners from inside the legislative chambers to a spot outside the Statehouse, behind a memorial for Confederate soldiers. Under the agreement, the Rebel banner could fly no higher than 20 feet above the ground.
Senators who had loudly backed the flag’s presence for decades conceded that the mounting financial toll of an eight-month boycott led by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People had become unbearable. Tourism industry officials say the boycott has pinched their profits, and on Wednesday, tennis star Serena Williams announced she was pulling out of the state’s Family Circle Cup competition.
An emotional six-hour prologue to the vote took on the passionate air of a war memorial service. White legislators talked movingly of dead Confederate ancestors. Black senators conjured up the dread and determination of the Civil Rights struggle.
“I’m gonna miss it,” said Sen. Glenn F. McConnell, a Son of the Confederacy member and flag partisan who was one of several key negotiators who shuttled between Senate offices late Tuesday, hammering out the details of the compromise. He said he “already has a sense of loss for the moment when I look up at the dome and the flag isn’t there anymore.”
Several black senators said their votes were no less difficult than those cast by flag supporters worried about the reactions of Confederate “heritage” groups. At least two abstained and another, Darrell Jackson, said NAACP officials “gave him looks of betrayal” when he discussed the matter before the vote.
But Jackson voted for the measure, saying it was time for “healing.” “I told my son this morning, wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could finally end the Civil War on the same day it started?” said Jackson, an African American legislator from Calhoun County. “He said, ‘Daddy, that’s up to you.’ ”
McConnell and other flag backers admitted Wednesday that they had grown weary of the fight only days after the Capitol grounds were clogged with thousands of rival protesters led by “Dixie"-singing Confederate loyalists and by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who trekked 120 miles in torn shoes to call for the flag’s lowering.
“I’ve been so depressed over this, but I believe we’re coming together,” said Smith, who insisted that flag supporters were not “a bunch of rednecks and racists.”
The agreement even won an aye from Sen. Arthur Ravenel Jr., a pro-flag die-hard whose put-down of the NAACP as the “National Association of Retarded People” flared during the state’s recent Republican presidential primary. When Ravenel entered the Senate chamber Wednesday morning, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a ragged chorus of “Dixie” by scores of flag partisans who filled the galleries.
McConnell, who headed off Wednesday night to sell the bill to Confederate heritage groups, insisted that the compromise “finally gives us a way to take the flag away from the hate groups and give it to the soldiers, where it belongs.”
The few legislators who fought the compromise vowed that the agreement would take on water when it reaches the state House. They pointedly reminded colleagues of a similar promising agreement that was scuttled five years ago with just 24 hours left in the session.
“If you take that flag down, the next morning 10,000 flags just like it will be hoisted all over the state,” said Sen. Harvey S. Peeler Jr. He added: “The rebels will still yell.”
But after the vote, McConnell and other former Dixie loyalists said that the agreement is in “stronger shape” than the 1994 failure because there are 60 days left in the legislative session--and because the near-unanimous backing of former flag die-hards “gives a clear message to the House that it’s time to put this to an end.”
Meanwhile Tuesday, the House agreed to a compromise bill establishing a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a separate holiday to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day.
The King holiday bill had been sidetracked earlier when opponents tacked on amendments in support of the Confederate flag, angering black lawmakers.