More than 150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, defenders of the Confederate flag in South Carolina finally lost their battle when the South Carolina House voted 94 to 20 to move the Confederate battle flag from the lawn of the Capitol to the Relic Room in the state museum.
The House vote to officially deem the flag a “relic” came after 15 hours of heated, often emotional debate throughout the day and night on Wednesday, when flag supporters argued for what they said was a symbol of their families’ Civil War bravery, while opponents called it a modern-day emblem of hate, rage, and racism.
But alongside those decades-old arguments sat the black-shrouded Senate desk of the late Clementa Pinckney, one of the Senate’s own and one of the nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church murdered last month by a white supremacist who proudly displayed the Confederate flag on his social media pages.
“What’s different? We all know what’s different,” said Representative James Smith, a Democrat from Columbia. “What’s different are the nine hate-filled murders in Charleston. The murders committed under the banner that flies in front of our state house.”
With Governor Nikki Hayley having called on the flag to fall, the Senate passed its bill earlier in the week swiftly, cleanly, and eloquently in a process that nearly all agreed would be a small, but symbolic gesture of healing for the state after the horrors at Mother Emanuel.
“This is a symbol, regardless of what you believe it means, that divides us, and we can’t afford to be divided anymore,” said Senator Vincent Shaheen, the Democratic sponsor of the bill. “What happened a couple of weeks ago opened the eyes of the people on this chamber. I believe that out of horror can come healing, and I believe it will.”
Senator Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican, said he would also vote to move the flag, as a tribute to Rev. Pinckney and his ministry. “I do not find the flag offensive but I know that some do,” Campsen said. “This is the least that I can do. This is the least I think the state should do.”
After the Senate’s 36-to-3 vote, the bill went to the House, where it needed to pass without amendments in order to be signed quickly by the governor and avoid delay or defeat in a later legislative session.
But it quickly became clear the House would prove a higher hurdle as Republican Representative Mike Pitts assembled more than two dozen amendments to do everything from removing every monument from the state house grounds to requiring that a field of yellow jasmine be planted if the Confederate flag were to be removed from where it had flown since 2000.
Suspicions that Pitts was trying to filibuster the bill grew as he spoke at length during the debate and veered off to tangents about his hearing aids, duck calls, indoor plumbing and his ancestors, who did not own slaves, but did, he explained, take up arms for the Confederacy during what he called “the war,” “the war between the states,” and “the war of northern aggression where the Yankees attacked the South.”
The debate grew more personal as more amendments were added and the day bled into evening. Representative Joseph Neal, a Democrat from Hopkins, reminded Representative Pitts that his family had its own history during the Civil War. “My heritage is based on a group of people who were brought here in chains, who were denigrated, demagogued, lynched, and killed, denied the right to vote and the right to even start a family.” Neal called for the Confederate flag to come down. “That flag that stands outside has stood as a thumb in the eye to the families in Charleston and we all know it.”
One by one, the House voted down or dispensed with Pitts’s amendments, but a noncontroversial measure from Representative Rick Quinn asking the Relic Room’s staff to provide the Senate with its proposed budget by January, ground the chamber to a halt as Quinn argued his amendment was harmless and Democrats, who has been mostly silent to that point, began to worry that the effort to bring down the flag would die yet again, despite the nine murders that had preceded the legislation.
“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 of these grounds,” Representative Jenny Horne (R-Charleston) said through tears. “For the widow of Senator Pinckney and his two young daughters, you will be adding insult to injury. I will not be part of it.”
Representative David Mack called Quinn’s effort to amend the Senate bill and endanger the prospect of removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol “disgusting.”
“Any black person born in South Carolina hates the sight of that flag,” Mack said. “We thought we could get a clean bill out of here and we would have done right by South Carolina and those families, but we did not. We kept our record intact and we said clearly, ‘This is who we are.’ And it’s a shame. It’s a shame.”
Representative Lonnie Hosey, a decorated Marine veteran, said he had not intended to speak on the amendment, but was struck by the indifference he was seeing in his colleagues toward the memory of Rev. Pinckney. “I sat there thinking, what if it had been me who went to my grave? These same people who say they love me, they care about me, would they be doing this same kind of thing?” Hosey then turned to Quinn and asked him to drop his amendment. “Mr. Quinn, please, sir, we need you to be the hero.”
Just before 1 a.m. Thursday, Quinn did drop his effort to amend the bill and explained that he was only trying to build a large enough majority to give the bill the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. He added that the Democrats who painted him as heartless were liars.
Change did not come easily to the South Carolina legislature, but it did come. The House passed the bill in the early morning hours Thursday, ending what might finally be the last battle of the Civil War, but acknowledging that like any war, there were no winners and no losers in an event that was preceded by so much tragedy.
Correction: 7/9/15, 12:16 p.m.: A previous version of this article referred to Representative Jenny Horne as a Democrat. She is a Republican.