John Drescher

Death of S.C. legislator changes Confederate flag debate

A Nov. 22, 2010 photo shows the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney, a Ridgeland Democrat and pastor at Mother Emanuel AME Church, died Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in the mass shooting at the church.
A Nov. 22, 2010 photo shows the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney, a Ridgeland Democrat and pastor at Mother Emanuel AME Church, died Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in the mass shooting at the church. AP

Two Citadel cadets lowered the Confederate battle flag from the State House dome in South Carolina 15 years ago on July 1 just before noon.

A minute later, as mandated by a hard-fought legislative compromise, Civil War reenactors raised a square version of the Confederate flag on a 30-foot pole at a prominent place on the State House grounds, where the flag has flown ever since.

A boisterous crowd of 3,000 gathered on that sunny Saturday to watch one flag come down and another go up. I was there, having just started a job in Columbia. The crowd was wired and tense, as flag supporters and enemies jostled and stood face to face, chest to chest.

Flag opponents held signs that said, “SHAME.” Flag supporters chanted, again and again, “Off the dome and in your face! Off the dome and in your face! Off the dome and in your face!”

I grew up in the South and covered plenty of speeches and protests but I’d never seen anything like this. Violence seemed imminent and inevitable. The plainclothes police were skillful and efficient, appearing from nowhere to separate the angriest people just before confrontations exploded.

Stunning reassessment

That flag, the source of so much passion that day, could be coming down. In the wake of the murders of nine people in a Charleston church, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed removing the flag from its prominent spot behind the Confederate Soldier Monument.

Haley’s bold, sudden proposal ignited a stunning reassessment across the South of the Confederate flag emblem and other monuments to the Lost Cause.

Haley previously had supported flying the flag on the State House grounds, as had most Republican politicians in the state. But many former flag supporters joined Haley and now support its removal.

Their change of position could be attributed to several factors. Among them was the deep respect the politicians held for one of their colleagues, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who was one of nine African-Americans killed at the church last week. Dylann Roof, 21, who’s accused of the shootings, posed for photos with the Confederate flag.

Loss of a friend

For politicians in South Carolina, a smallish and often insular state, Pinckney’s death was personal to them. He was a prodigy, first elected to the House at 23. He was gentle yet strong, a polished speaker, a modest friend with a wonderful optimism. He was 41 and leaves a wife and two children.

“I had a friend who died…simply because he was a black man,” Rep. Doug Brannon, a Republican from Spartanburg, told The State newspaper. “That flag is not just a symbol of hate – it is a symbol of pride in one’s hate. It should not be equated with the state of South Carolina in any way. It needs to come off of the capitol grounds, and we need to do it in honor of Sen. Pinckney.”

When Gov. Haley first heard about the shootings at the church, she called Pinckney and left him a message, unaware that he was one of the victims. A few days later, she said she “couldn’t look my son or daughter in the face and justify that flag flying anymore.”

The S.C. legislature voted quickly to debate removing the flag from the State House grounds. In offering support, senators repeatedly spoke of their slain colleague.

It’s been said that all politics is local. The same could be said of human relationships, especially those involving people who look different from one another.

When we get to know each other, maybe we aren’t so different after all. Clementa Pinckney’s death could lead to change that 15 years ago, on the day the Confederate flag was raised on the capitol grounds in South Carolina, didn’t seem possible.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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