COLUMBIA, S.C. — More than 50 years after the state of South Carolina raised a Confederate flag at its Statehouse to protest the civil rights movement, the rebel banner will be removed Friday in a state where such a reversal seemed unthinkable even a month ago.
The flag will be pulled down from the Capitol’s front lawn and the flagpole it flies on during a Friday morning ceremony, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said. Then, the banner will be taken to the Confederate Relic Room for display.
After the Civil War, when the pro-slavery South seceded, the flag was first flown over the dome of South Carolina’s Capitol in 1961 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the war. It stayed as a protest to the civil rights movement, only moving in 2000 from the dome to its current location after years of protest by African-Americans, who say the flag represents a racist, oppressive past.
The push that would bring down the Confederate flag for good only started after nine black churchgoers, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, were gunned down during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. Police said the white gunman’s motivation was racial hatred. Then three days later, photos surfaced of the suspect, Dylann Roof, holding Confederate flags. He is charged with nine counts of murder and hasn’t yet entered a plea.
Haley called for the flag’s removal. She will sign the bill — which passed the state House of Representatives early Thursday after 13 hours of debate — at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Statehouse lobby. The measure requires that the flag come down within 24 hours of her signature.
After the House passed the bill, there were hugs, tears and high fives in the chamber. Members snapped selfies and pumped their fists.
“I am 44 years old. I never thought I’d see this moment. I stand with people who never thought they would see this as well,” said Todd Rutherford, a top Democratic state legislator, who called the victims martyrs. “It’s emotional for us not just because it came down, but why it came down.”
But even among the celebrations, there was sadness.
Hours after the vote, Republican Rep. Jonathon Hill said he feared the move could be part of a campaign targeting Confederate and Civil War-era history.
“Hopefully it ends here, and we move forward, and we can put all of this behind us,” said Hill, one of 27 House members who opposed removing the flag on a key vote.
The final votes came around 1 a.m. Thursday after more than 13 hours of passionate and contentious debate.
As House members deliberated well into the night, there were tears of anger and shared memories of Civil War ancestors. Black Democrats, frustrated at being asked to show grace to Civil War soldiers as the debate wore on, warned that the state was embarrassing itself.
Changing the Senate bill could have meant taking weeks or even months to remove the flag, perhaps blunting momentum that has grown since the church massacre.
Republican Rep. Jenny Horne reminded her colleagues she was a descendent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and scolded fellow members of her party for stalling the debate with dozens of amendments.
She cried as she remembered Pinckney’s funeral and his widow, who was hiding with one of their daughters in a church office as the gunman fired dozens of shots.
Opponents of removing the flag talked about grandparents who passed down family treasures and lamented that the flag had been “hijacked” or “abducted” by racists.
Rep. Mike Pitts, who remembered playing with a Confederate ancestor’s cavalry sword while growing up, said that for him the flag is a reminder of how dirt-poor Southern farmers fought Yankees not because they hated blacks or supported slavery, but because their land was being invaded.
Those soldiers should be respected just as soldiers who fought in the Middle East or Afghanistan, he said, recalling his own military service.
Black lawmakers told their own stories of ancestors. Rep. Joe Neal talked about tracing his family back to four brothers, brought to America in chains to be bought by a slave owner named Neal who changed their last names and pulled them apart from their families.
“The whole world is asking, is South Carolina really going to change, or will it hold to an ugly tradition of prejudice and discrimination and hide behind heritage as an excuse for it,” Neal said.