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September 20th, 2017

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Think removing the Confederate flag will end the controversy?

Byron York

By Byron York

Published June 23, 2015

The Confederate flag flies on the Capitol grounds after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for its removal.

The cast of characters assembled to hear South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's brief remarks on the Confederate flag controversy Monday was a good clue that a deal is as good as done to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.

There was James Clyburn, the powerful House Democrat from South Carolina's Sixth District. Tim Scott, the Republican junior senator from the state. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senior senator. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mark Sanford, the Republican former governor and now representative from the First District. And many more.

No, the group did not include a majority of the state legislators who will be needed to remove the flag. But with so much pressure from the top, plus reports that state business leaders are also strongly on board, plus Haley's vow to call a special session if lawmakers don't remove the flag soon — put that all together and it's fair to say the flag won't be on the grounds much longer.

Things don't normally move so quickly. But the white supremacist murder of nine people gathered for Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Wednesday has jolted a state political system that has long debated the presence of the flag on the north side of the statehouse grounds.

In addition to Haley, Scott, one of just two black members of the U.S. Senate, was a key player. "Keep an eye on Tim," one South Carolina politico said a few hours before the announcement. The feeling was, if Scott decided to back removal of the flag, most other Republicans would align themselves with him.

It turned out Scott was pushed along by events just like everybody else. Over the weekend, he had promised to take a position, but said he would wait until after the victims' funerals to announce it. Barely 24 hours later, Scott was standing with Haley at the announcement.

The controversy has been a highly accelerated replay of the battle over the same flag 15 years ago. In 2000, the flag still flew from atop the Capitol dome in downtown Columbia. There was a long and impassioned debate over whether it should be removed, and at the end there was a compromise by which the flag was taken down and placed on the grounds away from the Capitol building. There were exquisitely detailed negotiations about everything: the height of the flagpole, size of the flag, its fabric, and more. But a deal was made.

"History is often filled with emotion, and that's more true in South Carolina than a lot of other places," Haley, the Indian-American woman first elected governor in 2010, said. "On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history. We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives, and the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don't need reminders."

The speed with which the South Carolina political system moved is the product not only of the heinousness of the crime in Charleston but also the changes that have taken place in the state. A popular vacation and retirement destination, the percentage of South Carolina's population that was actually born in the state is decreasing. In 1980, it was 72.6 percent; in 1990, 68.4 percent; 2000, 64.0 percent, and in 2010, 59.4 percent.

Still, Haley took care to address concerns of the old South Carolina. "For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble, traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry," Haley said. "Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty."

"At the same time," Haley continued, "for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. As a state, we can survive, and indeed we can thrive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here."

If South Carolinians have any worry about the change, it is that it won't stop with the flag. There are Confederate memorials and landmarks on public property all over the South, just as there are Union memorials and landmarks on public property all over the North and Midwest. (Washington D.C. is filled with them, from equestrian statues in traffic circles to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.) Will new versions of the flag fight continue ad infinitum as activists seek to remove reminders of the Confederacy?

On Monday, James Clyburn sought to ease those fears, suggesting the flag fight is narrowly limited. "If you want to honor the Confederate soldiers on Confederate Memorial Day, I'm all for that," Clyburn said on MSNBC. "But to have [the flag] as a constant indication of some authority, some sovereignty, in the front of the north side of our Capitol, that is an affront to me and a lot of other people in South Carolina."

The next action is up to South Carolina's lawmakers. But even if they quickly remove the flag, the fight over the underlying issue could go on for many more years.

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