In June, the South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard carried the mortal remains of the murdered Sen. Clementa Pinckney up the State House steps and into the rotunda.
Members of the honor guard flanked the open coffin, spit polished and erect, eyes straight ahead in a silent show of respect as thousands of mourners filed past. A black cloth had been draped over one of the windows to spare anyone who might be offended by the Confederate battle flag flying out front.
A bill called the Heritage Act passed in this very building prevented the flag from being lowered even to half-staff, much less taken down without a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
But on Thursday, the legislature voted to do just that and set a 24-hour deadline on having it done.
On Friday, the honor guard returned, this time to lower the Confederate battle flag, which had been designed by William Porcher Miles, a onetime mayor of Charleston who had been a prominent “fire-eater,” as the most ardent proponents of slavery and secession leading up to the Civil War were called.
The honor guard had performed countless other ceremonies, but this one was a little different. And they had not been given much time to work out exactly how it should go.
The flag was being taken down in the first place because it was seen by many people—African-Americans in particular—as a hateful symbol of slavery and oppression. Some rightly view it as a shameful banner of treason.
But it had been hoisted there in the first place because it is viewed by others—none of them African-Americans—as a symbol of an idealized heritage and history.
And the very fact that the honor guard had been chosen to lower it was an implicit nod to those people.
At the appointed time on Friday morning, the guard went about lowering the flag with the same ritualistic respect as it would with the Stars and Stripes.
Two of the officers took the lowered banner in their white gloved hands.
And for a moment, it seemed as if they might fold it as they would an American flag that had covered the coffin of a fellow cop or a U.S. solider who had made the supreme sacrifice.
Instead, they rolled it, presumably an echo of the way Confederate regiments furled their battle flags in surrender at the end of the Civil War.
A black sergeant was the one who then took the furled banner. He had done this at American flag ceremonies where race was not issue, but it was hard to believe that he had been chosen by chance in this instance.
He seemed to be an attempt to compensate for the bigotry associated with what he now carried so solemnly over to the State House steps. The director of the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum waited to receive it.
For a second, truly terrible moment, the ritual was too much like that performed when the flag from a hero’s coffin is presented to a grieving loved one along with the words, “On behalf of a grateful nation.…”
Thankfully, the sergeant uttered not a word. The director, Allen Roberson, was also silent as he took the furled flag.
“Nothing was said,” Roberson later told The Daily Beast. “I felt like that was appropriate.”
Roberson was escorted up into the State House.
“I just wanted to make sure I didn’t trip when I was carrying the flag,” he recalled.
He then descended to the basement, where an armored car was waiting to transport the flag to the museum.
Upon arriving, Roberson brought the flag in through a back door. The flag was unrolled, smoothed and carefully folded.
“So it wouldn’t crease,” Roberson said.
The museum’s registrar, Rachel Cockrell, and an intern named John Faulkenberry placed it in an “acid-free textile storage box, padded with acid-free tissue.” The box was stored in the museum’s “secure, climate-controlled Artifact Storage area.”
“Locked and alarmed,” Roberson said.
Roberson dismissed as not entirely accurate reports that there had been a tacit agreement as part of a legislative compromise to store the flag in a multimillion-dollar facility funded by the taxpayers—which would include, necessarily, the descendants of slaves.
He allowed that there had been some brainstorming with various architects and planners, but nothing had been decided and whatever was ultimately done would not likely be so grand.
He noted that he has not been able to get added funding for anything in recent years.
“Our budget has not increased at all,” he said.
Back at the State House, the flagpole where the banner had flown was now bare, but a monument to the Confederate dead remained. The inscription on the north side reads:
“This monumentperpetuates the memory,of those whotrue to the instincts of their birth,faithful to the teachings of their fathers,constant in their love for the State,died in the performance of their duty:Whohave glorified a fallen causeby the simple manhood of their lives,the patient endurance of suffering,and the heroism of death,and who,in the dark house of imprisonment,in the hopelessness of the hospital,in the short, sharp agony of the fieldfound support and consolationin the beliefthat at home they would not be forgotten.Unveiled May 13, 1879”
The fallen cause they glorified included sedition and slavery. The people at home included slaves who had suffered horrors that outdid even war.
There is also an inscription on the north side:
“Let the stranger,who may in the future timesread this inscription,recognize that these were menwhom power could not corrupt,whom death could not terrify,whom defeat could not dishonorand let their virtues pleadfor just judgmentof the cause in which they perished.Let the South Carolinianof another generationrememberthat the State taught themhow to live and how to die.And that from her broken fortunesshe has preserved for her childrenthe priceless treasure of their memories,teaching all who may claimthe same birthrightthat truth, courage and patriotismendure forever.”
The truth is they died fighting to deny fellow human beings the right to life and liberty. Their legacy is racism and hate.
The flowery falsehoods on the monument remain, now that the flag has been taken down in somber ceremony with white gloved hands and tucked safely away by a very nice museum director in an acid-free box, locked and alarmed.