COLUMBIA, S.C. (July 9, 2015) — The Confederate battle flag, a polarizing fixture on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds for half a century, will flap in the wind no longer.
Early Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 94-20 to remove it, giving final approval to a bill that passed the Senate earlier in the week.
The vote count was more than the two-thirds needed — but it came after a handful of lawmakers mounted a tenacious last stand, proposing amendment after amendment that led the debate to drag on more than 12 hours.
The bill now goes to Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said she will sign it into law.
“Today, as the Senate did before them, the House of Representatives has served the State of South Carolina and her people with great dignity,” Haley said in a statement early Thursday.
“It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state.”
For decades, African-Americans and others have demanded the flag come down. To them, it is a racist symbol that represents a war to uphold slavery and, later, a battle to oppose civil rights advances.
But their voices were drowned out by supporters who argued it is a symbol of Southern culture.
That all changed last month when a white gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, killed nine African-American worshipers in a Charleston church.
After the massacre, photos quickly surfaced of Roof holding the battle flag, which he revered as a symbol of white supremacy.
The racially motivated attack triggered a national wave of sympathy and renewed calls to have the battle flag removed.
That was a little more than three weeks ago.
On Tuesday, the South Carolina Senate voted 36-3 to bring down the flag.
It handed a clean bill to the House, but things didn’t go as smoothly there.
When debate started in the House around noon Wednesday, the flag’s supporters began proposing one amendment after another.
And proceedings dragged on into early Thursday, as they were declared out of order or legislators voted to knock them down, 68 in all.
Some proposals were designed to delay action: Hold a referendum over the flag during the 2016 presidential election. Have a museum calculate costs of displaying the flag and return a budget for legislators to consider in January.
Other proposed amendments took up lawmakers’ time with minutiae: Replace the flag pole with a pole honoring black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. Dig up the state flower bed. Protect or remove about a dozen other state monuments.
Each proposal put lawmakers further away from a vote on the bill itself.
It was too much for a legislator who unleashed a tearful admonition at her colleagues.
Rep. Jenny Horne added herself to a long list of white Republicans crying for the flag to come down immediately.
She had been to the funerals of the nine worshipers shot dead inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And she was still bereft.
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body…”
She paused to swallow her sobs and raised her voice to shout, “to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds.”
She thrust her finger at the floor with every word of her demand.
Potentially long delays
Had one amendment passed, it would have meant more debate, more bureaucracy and the battle flag would have continued to flap in the wind yards away for weeks, maybe months, Horne said.
“We are going to be doing this all summer long,” Horne protested.
“And if any of you vote to amend, you are ensuring that this flag will fly beyond Friday. And for the widow of Sen. Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury, and I will not be a part of it.”
Clementa Pinckney was a state senator and was leading the bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, when Roof drew a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Pinckney was among those shot dead.
Horne left the speaker’s podium to land in the tight embrace of an African-American lawmaking colleague standing on the House floor.
The tenacity behind the fight to delay the flag’s removal had been fanned outside the House chamber.
The State newspaper reported that pro-Confederate flag robocalls urged voters last week to call their representatives and to tell them to “not stand with leftist fanatics who want to destroy the South we love.”
“What’s next? This attack on our values is sick and un-American, and it has to stop right here and right now in South Carolina,” the call said.
Legislators had received death threats over their potential votes on the flag, CNN affiliate WOLO reported.
And sympathies for the Confederate battle flag go beyond South Carolina’s borders.
According to a new CNN/ORC poll, U.S. public opinion on the Confederate flag remains about where it was 15 years ago, with 57% of Americans seeing it more as a symbol of Southern pride than of racism.
In the end, it is close to being a done deal. All it needs now is Haley’s signature.
“It’s been a long time coming but I always felt this day would come,” tweeted U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, who represents South Carolina’s 6th District.