In historic move, South Carolina to take down Confederate flag

2015-07-10 13:24
Confederate flag. (File: AFP)

Confederate flag. (File: AFP)

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Washington - The Confederate flag, the pro-slavery banner of the US Civil War, was to be removed Friday from South Carolina's statehouse, where it has flown for a half-century as a powerful and polarising symbol of America's racial divide.

The decision to take down the flag follows historic votes this week by state lawmakers endorsing the move, after the church murders of nine African Americans last month by a racist gunman who drew inspiration for his white supremacist views from the red, white and blue "Stars and Bars".

At precisely 10:00 on Friday, the flag was to be lowered by a South Carolina state police honour guard.

It is later to be put on display about a mile away at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

The prominence of the flag, as well as other Civil War iconography across the South, has been debated for years.

Church murders

The flag remains controversial not only because of its association with slavery, but because it was embraced as a defiant symbol of civil rights opponents during the 1950s and 1960s, and racist apologists thereafter.

But the shock and outrage following the church murders led to a re-examination of the flag, and all that it stands for, and prompted local and state governments, as well as prominent businesses across the United States, to distance themselves from it.

The flag has been flying alongside a Confederate war memorial outside the state house since 2000, after years atop the domed roof of the legislature in the southern state where the Civil War erupted in 1861.

But it became a lightning rod for outrage after the June 17 killings of nine black worshippers by a young white gunman during a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged in the killings, had been photographed before the attack with the Confederate flag, which for many is seen as a symbol of hate and racism rather than Southern heritage.

'We will bring it down with dignity'

Governor Nikki Haley on Thursday signed the bill finalising the law to remove the flag.

"We will bring it down with dignity and make that it is put in its rightful place," she said at the signing ceremony in the state capital Columbia, flanked by relatives of the Emanuel church massacre.

The dead included Emanuel's chief pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

Late Thursday, after the bill signing, Haley tweeted: "This is a story about the history of South Carolina, and how the action of nine individuals laid out this long chain of events that forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness looks like."

By law, the Confederate flag could only be lowered - and relegated to a museum - with the consent of South Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature.

That finally came before dawn o0n Thursday when the state's House of Representatives agreed overwhelmingly to remove the flag - as their Senate colleagues had done at the start of the week.

Symbol of hate

Thursday's vote in the South Carolina House came after more than 13 hours of heated debate, with opponents of the flag defeating a raft of amendments intended to slow down passage of the measure.

"I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday," said Republican Representative Jenny Horne, at times fighting back tears.

Meanwhile, as South Carolina prepared to lower the flag, debate reached fever pitch in Washington, where Republicans had introduced a controversial amendment, due for a vote Thursday, that would preserve the right to place the flag on graves on federal property.

Democrats reacted with outrage, with one African-American congressman, Hakeem Jeffries, bringing a Confederate flag to the House floor and insisting it represented not Southern heritage but "racial hatred and oppression."

"Let's choose racial progress over racial poison," he said. "Let's choose togetherness over treason."

Amid the backlash, House Speaker John Boehner scrapped the vote, saying the issue should not become a "political football" and that lawmakers should hold "responsible" discussions about the path forward regarding the flag.

Following last month's shooting, the Confederate flag has already come down outside the Alabama state legislature, and several major retailers across the United States have said they will no longer sell flag-related merchandise.

Members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan are planning a pro-flag rally in Columbia on July 18.

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