by Paul Bowers
During a press conference calling for state lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said that the flag had been "appropriated" as a symbol of hate.
"The Confederate battle flag years and years ago was appropriated as a symbol of hate," Riley said. "It is a piece of history and it belongs in a history museum."
The flag, which was flown by Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia after Southerners seceded from the Union in a conflict rooted in the issue of slavery, was placed on top of the Statehouse dome in 1962 in the midst of the Civil Rights era. In 2000, as a compromise after protesters including Mayor Riley marched on the capital building, the flag was removed from the dome and placed atop a monument for Confederate soldiers on the northern end of the Statehouse grounds facing Main Street.
Riley was joined at the press conference in North Charleston City Hall by leaders including state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, NAACP Charleston Branch President Dot Scott, the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network, state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, County Councilman Teddie Pryor, and Elder James Johnson.
Elliott Summey mentioned that Dylann Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder in last week's shooting at Emanuel AME Church, had been photographed with Confederate flags and said that Roof has "a skewed sense of history."
"[The flag] should be put in a place of honor somewhere in a museum," Summey said. "Anyone who died in any war or any conflict protecting the state of South Carolina — whether you agree with the motives that they were protecting it for — they have a place in our history. Most of those folks that died in the Civil War protecting South Carolina were poor folks who were misled in some ways."
A 2014 Winthrop Poll found that 61 percent of South Carolinians supported keeping the flag on Statehouse grounds, including 73 percent of whites and 27 percent of blacks. But Keith Summey said that public opinion in the state is now largely against flying the flag on Statehouse property.
"Put the flag in its place of history where it deserves to be, but do not fly it in the face of people who it has a separate meaning for," Keith Summey said.
Rep. Stavrinakis, who previously marched with Mayor Riley and other state leaders in Columbia in 2000 calling for the flag's removal from the Statehouse dome, challenged fellow members of the state legislature to vote to take down the flag.
"It's time for the General Assembly to make a very simple choice: Whose message wins here?" Stavrinakis said. "The message of an evil, racist murderer? Or the rest of us, black and white, all faiths and backgrounds together, calling out for a symbol — rightly or wrongly — that if racist killers adopt it as their own, as their motivation for killing people of color, people who are different than they are, in our state, then we have to act on that."
Other leaders at the press conference spoke more directly of the Confederate flag as a symbol from the U.S. Civil War.
"The Civil War started in South Carolina," Rev. Darby said. "We want the Civil War to end starting in South Carolina."
As the Free Times has reported, it would take a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds. As part of the 2000 compromise, lawmakers signed into law the Heritage Act, which makes it illegal to remove or alter monuments commemorating wars including the "War Between the States." The removal of any such memorial would require "passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly," according to the law.
Sen. Kimpson said at the press conference that removing the flag from its place on the northern end of the Statehouse grounds would be "a start."
"Let me underscore this: It will not solve the racial divide in South Carolina," Kimpson said. "We need a positive discourse on the problems that continue to plague our state, including economic opportunities for all."