COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate battle flag was still flying high atop a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina Statehouse on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to honor their beloved black colleague with a viewing in the Rotunda. Elsewhere around the nation, leaders were already demoting the historic but divisive symbol.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley became the first southern governor to use his executive power to remove Confederate banners in response to last week’s massacre of nine people inside a historic African-American church. Four flags with secessionist symbols were taken down Wednesday from a large monument to Confederate soldiers outside that state’s capitol.
“It has become a distraction all over the country right now,” Bentley said. The iconic Confederate battle flag in particular “is offensive to some people because unfortunately, it’s like the swastika; some people have adopted that as part of their hate-filled groups.”
The slaying of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and his parishioners after they welcomed a gunman into their Bible study has suddenly become a catalyst for re-examining the meaning of Civil War symbols nationwide.
But in South Carolina, making any changes to “heritage” symbols requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the state legislature, and while lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a debate later this summer, few wanted to risk ugly words during a week of funerals for those killed in the church attack.
Brought to the capitol in a horse-drawn carriage, Pinckney’s open coffin was being put on display under the dome where he served the state for nearly 20 years. The 41-year-old lead pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church spent a lot of time in the second-floor lobby. He started his Statehouse career as a page. He was the youngest member elected to the House in 1997 and became a senator in 2001.
A large black drape was put over the lobby’s big window, blocking the view of the Confederate flag outside. Mourners will file past a statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, who argued in the 1820s and 1830s that states should be able to decide not to follow federal laws they did not like.
The last person to lie under the dome was former Gov. Carroll Campbell in December 2005. Pinckney will be the first African-American given the honor at least since Reconstruction.
Prodded by Gov. Nikki Haley’s call to move the flag to a museum, South Carolina’s lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed to revisit an uneasy compromise that has held for 15 years, since mass protests succeeded in moving the flag from atop the dome to its current spot out front.
Politicians around the nation then joined calls to remove historic but divisive Civil War-era symbols from their places of honor, from state flags to license plates to statues and place names. Many said change is imperative after seeing photos of shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man, posing with the Confederate flag and burning and desecrating the U.S. flag.
Even the Citadel, South Carolina influential military college, whose cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War, voted in favor of moving its Confederate Naval Jack flag from its prominent place inside its main chapel to a more “appropriate” campus location.
As with any other historic symbol in the state, even that move will require state lawmakers to amend the same Heritage Act that has kept the Confederate battle flag flying high outside the statehouse, even as U.S. and state flags were lowered to half-staff.
Four former South Carolina governors applauded Haley on Wednesday. Signed by Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, Dick Riley, David Beasley and Jim Hodges, their statement says the slayings “have reminded us of the important bond we share as South Carolina citizens. We should fly only the United States and South Carolina flags on our Statehouse grounds — flags that represent us all.”
“This is an extraordinary opportunity for South Carolina to be the beacon on the hill — to show love and not vengeance, to show unity and not division,” said Beasley, who was voted out of office in 1998 after advocating for its removal. He said he’s startled by how many legislators have switched positions in a matter of days.
Conservative Republican lawmakers around the South were adding their voices to these sentiments Wednesday. U.S. Senator Roger Wicker became Mississippi’s second top-tier Republican to call for changing the flag that state has used since Reconstruction. Wicker said it “should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying.”
Lawmakers in Tennessee said a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest must go from their Senate. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was among several state leaders taking aim at vanity license plates with Confederate symbols.
Businesses also moved quickly: Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears were among those removing Confederate merchandise from stores and online sites, and at least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the Confederate flag.
For many, these changes can’t happen quickly enough. For many others, it’s all too fast.
Confederate symbols appear all over the South, from statehouses to courthouses to schools and streets and parks.
Already, a growing number of statues in multiple states have been defaced by graffiti. The words “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted Wednesday on a century-old Confederate memorial in St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where the phrase took root last August, after an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer.
These symbols are under attack by a “wave of political correctness” that is vilifying Southern culture, complained Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard.” He said Confederate items will never be removed from the Cooter’s Place stores he owns in Tennessee and Virginia.
The few South Carolina lawmakers openly defending the flag include Republican Jonathon Hill, a freshman representative who said the flag rightly flies over a monument dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers. He also said dealing with the issue so soon was disrespectful to the victims’ families.
“You’re going to defeat racism with love and forgiveness. You’re not going to defeat it with politics and certainly not with more hatred,” said Hill. “Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it’s a very divisive issue,” he said, referring to the shooting suspect. “I think it could very well get ugly.”
Roof, now jailed on murder and gun charges, had posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags. A friend of his told The Associated Press that Roof had talked of planning to do something “for the white race.”
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop South Carolina’s Statehouse dome in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and lawmakers decided to keep it there in 1962 in response to the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to the flagpole out front in 2000.
A second viewing of Pinckney will take place Thursday morning at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in his Senate district, and Thursday night at Emanuel AME. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston.
Drew reported from Charleston, South Carolina. Associated Press writer Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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