COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate flag flew high Wednesday outside the South Carolina Statehouse, but a large drape kept mourners from seeing it as they filed past the open casket of a veteran black lawmaker and pastor.
The slayings of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others inside their historic black church is prompting national soul-searching over historic but divisive symbols. The makeshift drape obscuring the secessionist battle flag only emphasized how quickly this symbol of Southern pride has fallen into official disrepute.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley became the first southern governor to use his executive power to remove Confederate banners, as four flags with secessionist symbols were taken down Wednesday from a large monument to rebel 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.”
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.
Pinckney’s open coffin was brought to the Statehouse in a horse-drawn carriage and displayed under the dome. He’s the first African-American given such an honor since at least Reconstruction.
The 41-year-old lead pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church served the state for nearly 20 years and spent a lot of time in the second-floor lobby, where mourners were greeted by five state senators and two former governors, as well as his wife and two young daughters. Pinckney came to the Statehouse as a page, and in 1997 became the youngest member elected to the House. He became a senator in 2001.
To honor him, people also had to file past a statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, who argued in the 1820s and 1830s that slavery was a “positive good,” and that states should be able to decide not to follow federal laws they don’t like.
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.
Other conservative Republicans then spoke up, and by Wednesday, both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators endorsed removing the Confederate symbol from the flag the state has flown since Reconstruction, even though the state’s voters decided to keep it back in 2001.
Lawmakers and activists around the nation took aim at other symbols, from a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee’s Senate, to a sculpture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Rotunda, to the vanity license plates used by thousands of motorists in various southern states. In Minnesota, a petition was circulating to rename Lake Calhoun.
Many said change is imperative after seeing photos of Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man, posing with the Confederate flag and burning and desecrating the U.S. flag. Roof was captured after a motorist spotted his Confederate license plate. Now held on murder and gun charges, he was appointed federal public defenders on Wednesday as the Justice Department considers whether to file hate crime charges.
Other photographs showing Roof posing at Confederate museums, former slave plantations and slave graves were uploaded to a website along with an essay whose writer wished every white person had a chance to brutalize blacks before the Civil War, and mentioned choosing Charleston for its place in America’s racial history.
“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 David Beasley, who lost the governorship in 1998 after advocating for the flag’s removal. He joined three other former South Carolina governors in applauded Haley on Wednesday.
Even at the Citadel, South Carolina influential military college, whose cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War, board members voted in favor of moving its Confederate Naval Jack flag from its prominent place inside the main chapel to a more “appropriate” campus location. Even that move requires lawmakers to amend the same Heritage Act that kept the battle flag flying high as U.S. and state flags were lowered to half-staff.
Businesses don’t face such constraints. Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears are among those saying Confederate merchandise will be gone from their stores and online sites. At least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the rebel battle flag.
For many, these changes can’t happen quickly enough. For many others, it’s all too fast.
Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard,” said these symbols are under attack by a “wave of political correctness” that is vilifying Southern culture. He said Confederate items will never be removed from the Cooter’s Place stores he owns in Tennessee and Virginia.
A growing number of the Confederate symbols that appear all over the South 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 after a white officer killed an unarmed black man last August. In Charleston, the words “racist” and “slavery” were painted Tuesday on a monument to Calhoun, just a block from where the Emanuel AME church stands on Calhoun Street.
Historian Robert Chase says the vandalism reflects deep anger over the ideas Roof hoped to spread.
“The way Dylann Roof saw this was about recapturing the space of Charleston as a white space and the removal of African Americans from that space,” said Chase, a historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “The entire city is a living monument to history. Every space, every street, every building has history attached to it.”
The few lawmakers openly defending the flag include Republican Jonathon Hill, a freshman South Carolina representative who said it should remain above the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, and that addressing it now disrespects the victims’ families.
“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,” Hill said. “I think it could very well get ugly.”
But as Alana Simmons made funeral arrangements for her grandfather, Emanuel AME pastor Daniel Simmons Sr., she said the relatives are glad to see South Carolina and other states taking action. “We appreciate the efforts of the state to remove the flag,” she said.
Other viewings and funerals for the nine victims are scheduled through Monday. President Barack Obama plans to memorialize the victims Friday morning during Pinckney’s funeral 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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