South Carolina Gov Signs Confederate Flag Compromise
By Lisa Goddard, Special to Stateline
While some relieved South Carolina lawmakers are grandly calling it the end of the Civil War, a historic Confederate flag compromise in Columbia shows how the war's legacy still inflames racial tensions 135 years later.
After dominating the Palmetto State's 2000 legislative session, the rancorous battle over the Confederate battle flag and its position over the state Capitol dome ended Tuesday when Democratic South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed into law a bill that removes the banner from the dome and from both legislative chambers. The flag will be transferred to a monument in front of the Capitol.
When the rebel banner is lowered from the Capitol dome for good five weeks from now, many say it will leave behind a South Carolina where blacks and whites are further apart than when the flag fluttered over Columbia.
"This does not heal," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an African-American and the Democratic minority leader in the state House of Representatives. "All this does is divide."
Cobb-Hunter led the House Legislative Black Caucus in a defiant rejection of the flag compromise. Of 26 African-American House members, only four voted for the final bill.
Black Caucus members say the battle flag's new home on a flag pole in front of the Capitol, just a few feet from Columbia's Main Street, is still offensive.
"The flag represents the Confederacy that enslaved, exploited, murdered, raped and killed our people for over three hundred years," said Rep. Joe Neal, Black Caucus vice-chairman. "But somehow it seems to be okay to ask us to fly it in front of our building."
The Black Caucus lobbied for options that would have pushed the flag further from sight, including a proposal to encase it in glass, and one to display a bronze replica.
But many other Democrats and Republicans in the House say the solutions sought by African-American legislators wouldn'thave garnered enough votes from moderate, and white, flag supporters to pass.
"I'm sorry we couldn't get everyone," Republican Speaker of the House David Wilkins said. "But a majority decided we need to move forward."
Wilkins and other Republican leaders said in the Senate, six of seven black lawmakers voted for the flag compromise bill.
But the Senate is known for having spirited debate behind the scenes, while showing consensus in public. And in public,black senators clearly had misgivings with their decision to compromise.
"I know the NAACP won't accept it, but this is the best we can do," black Democratic Sen. Kay Patterson announced. Sixteen years ago, Patterson was the first lawmaker to call for the Confederate flag to be lowered from the Capitol dome.
The NAACP was quick to reject the compromise bill, the final step in a political journey the organization set in motion.
The civil rights organization orchestrated a tourism boycott of South Carolina that began Jan. 1. The NAACP says that boycott won't stop, and may even expand, once the Confederate flag leaves the Capitol dome.
"This is no compromise, as far as people of color are concerned," state NAACP President James Gallman said. "This is an effort to insult people of color."
The unyielding stance of the NAACP is leading to another racial rift in the state. South Carolina's white business community has been one of the NAACP's most vocal backers in the push to remove the Confederate flag from the dome.
However, now that the flag is coming down, white businessmen want the boycott to come down with it.
After vigorously lobbying the Legislature to move the flag, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce now says thatcontinuing the boycott would be meaningless. "I think once South Carolina deals with the issue and has moved it from theState House dome, a boycott of South Carolina would not have an impact," said Howard Hunter, Chamber president.
Hunter's organization, and visitors bureaus across the state are already preparing advertising campaigns to bring back lost business, once the flag comes down from the perch it's been displayed from since 1962.
Meanwhile, the NAACP is contemplating boycotts in other Southern states that commemorate the Confederacy.
When Virginia Republican Governor Jim Gilmore declared April Confederate history month, that drew boycott murmurs from the state's NAACP chapter.
In Georgia, elements of the Confederate flag's design are incorporated into the Peach State's flag. Georgia is widely assumed to be the next major battleground over Confederate symbols.
South Carolina's flag will be removed from its State House perch July 1. The strong feelings that state residents have about the compromise plan are well documented. Now the big question is, how will out-of-state tourism react to the compromise?