One year ago Sunday: A look back on the removal of the Confederate flag from SC Statehouse

One year ago today: A look back on the removal of the Confederate flag from SC Statehouse (Photo: WCIV)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- At the Statehouse on a hot afternoon in July it's business as usual. But a year ago, the scene was much different as the Confederate flag was removed from the Statehouse grounds for the final time.

Many said they never thought they would see it happen in their lifetime.

But in the wake of a deadly church shooting, the flag became the visible focus of change in South Carolina--a change that spread across the South.

As the push to remove the flag blossomed, the fight renewed between groups over whether the flag was a symbol of heritage or hate.

It was the pictures of Dylann Roof posing with the Confederate flag that reignited the decades old debate at the Statehouse.

The Confederate flag belongs in a museum where it can't affect people like Dylann Roof.

And it was Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of Roof's nine victims, who was at the forefront of the fight in 2000 to get the flag removed from the dome at the Statehouse. Lawmakers compromised, putting it on a pole in front of the capitol building at Main and Gervais street.

For 15 years, the Confederate flag flew there, something Pinckney saw every time he stepped foot in the Statehouse until his death.

Decades of work culminated in a minute of work on July 10, 2015, and the flag was taken down in front of a cheering crowd of thousands. But being witness to history doesn't necessarily mean supporting it.

"This is what I would consider a great day in South Carolina," said Rep. Wendell Gilliard.

A few hours later with considerably less pomp and circumstance, construction crews quickly removed the wrought iron fence, the pole, and even the concrete platform on which the pole stood.

"God works in mysterious ways and it took this to happen for us to come together and realize we are all one," said Sierra Morris, who attended the flag removal ceremony.

About two weeks before lawmakers voted to remove the flag, one woman tried to remove it herself.

These days, most people don't recognize Bree Newsome but when they find out what she did they want to shake her hand. She says she's humbled by the attention.

Newsome said she knew something had to be done after flag supporters wouldn't lower it to half-staff during the funerals for the Emanuel 9.

"We felt that it was really significant not just that I was black but that I also was a woman," she said.

Newsome was threatened with arrest - and later was - but she didn't let it discourage her. She says she also never set out to be an activist but there are moments in life that she says just pulls a person in and makes them act.

This was hers.

That day Gov. Nikki Haley stood shoulder to shoulder with lawmakers, activists, and family members of the Emanuel 9, watching as history was made.

Haley says the removal of that Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds was the punctuation of a year of change for South Carolina.

"I know so many people think of the Confederate flag as heritage and respect and sacrifice but that murderer hijacked that flag," she said.

From the carnage of that unspeakable act, a renewed and steadfast resilience to remove what the governor called a symbol of hatred.

"What I knew is that I could never have any kids drive past the Statehouse, and look at that flag, and think of those 12 people in that room because that is what that flag meant now," Haley said.

She knew she had to rally the lawmakers and unite them for a moment of change in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

"That Monday I called on a group of Republicans, a group of Democrats, the federal delegation and a group of leaders and I didn't tell them why I was calling because I was worried that they wouldn't come," she said.

But for all her trepidation, the governor still reeling from the pain and heartache of nine funerals, she says she listened to her heart and then calmly explained the plan.

"I told them was going to have a press conference at 4 p.m. that day and I said, 'If you will be with me and stand with me I will be forever grateful. And if you choose not to I will never let anybody ever know you were in this room,'" she said.

Unsure of who she could count on, the governor knew she had at least one person in her corner--her husband, Michael.

"What I had was my husband because I didn't know if it was going to be just me and my husband standing up there," she said. "I think you saw the start of so much goodness and kindness."

But what happened in that backroom meeting was quickly brought into the blistering sunlight of another Southern summer.

"We wanted this to just be about the Statehouse and just about that flag. That's part of our history. That flag coming down was part of our future and that was to say that flags are living breathing symbols and that symbol did not represent South Carolina anymore," she said.

There were a lot of people who did not agree with Haley, including Sen. Lee Bright, who represents part of the Upstate. He said bringing down the flag should be a decision made by the people of South Carolina, not its politicians.

He started an online petition and then proposed an amendment that called for a statewide referendum.

Bright said he owed it to the soldiers who fought and died for the Confederacy, and believed the flag still proudly symbolized states' rights and constitutional liberties.

"People talk about hate and that flag represents hate, and I have never had so much venom spewed at me since being an elected official over standing for southern heritage," he said.

Bright expressed his concerns that bringing down the flag was an emotional response to what happened in Charleston, and he saw his amendment tabled.

The vote to remove the flag came after a marathon day of debate in the House, and it appeared lawmakers were not going to budge until one Lowcountry woman took the floor and gave an unforgettable speech.

Thirteen hours into the flag debate, Jenny Horne stepped to the microphone and grabbed the podium with both hands.

With the voice of determination she started strong - and then her voice started to waiver and her emotions took over.

"This flag offends my friend Mia McCloud, and my friend John King, my friend Rev. Neal," she said, tears streaming down her face. "I cannot believe we do not have the heart, this body, to do something meaningful as to take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday."

In the middle of the night, in less than four minutes, she brought legislators to their feet and her passionate plea swayed just enough lawmakers, who she said had been hurling insults at each other all day, to pass the measure.

Horne became the voice not just for the Emanuel 9 but for others.

"I can tell you when I go places and people know I am the woman who gave that speech and grown men hugging me with tears in their eyes saying thank you for what you did for me, that is really kind of powerful... speaking truth to power," she said.

Her entire speech was fewer than 500 words, but powerful enough to bring down the flag. She says she still cries about that night.

However, when the day came for the flag to come down, Horne was advised to avoid the ceremony because she had received death threats.

But one man who was there was Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who had been involved in the fight to remove the flag from the dome.

He grew up with the injustice of segregation, and watched the racially charged flag go up in the face of the civil rights movement. It may have flown on a dome 140 miles away but the Confederate flag was a thorn for Riley.

"The citizens of South Carolina are good people and they want this issue resolved," he said.

It spurred a march to the state capitol. He led the blistering four-day walk, and hundreds followed, including beloved author Pat Conroy.

"I'm glad to see there are a lot of white people who think it's a terrible message and I'm one of them," Conroy said.

The flag did come down from the Statehouse dome -- only to land in the lawn, where it flew another 15 years, even during in the procession for Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

But the church massacre and its accused gunman exposed and exploited its deepest roots.

"He came with hate and they responded with unity and love that makes that day so special for me," Riley said.

The man who ran to unite a city racially, in its darkest hour did.

"It really was one of the happiest moments aside from my family things of my life," Riley said.

The thorn he'd felt for so long was gone.

For more than 100 years, there have been fights over the Confederate flag's symbol. Much of what is written in South Carolina's history books tells the story of a South rich in pride and heritage.

Dr. Bernard Power, a South Carolina historian, says that heritage came at the expense of slaves.

"I really didn't think that I would see it ever come down. I was elated to see that it did," he said.

But he recognizes how rooted the flag is in the state's narrative.

"The flag was in the position that it was in at a time a year ago more firmly, in the legal sense, than it had ever been before," he said. "It was bittersweet because of the price that was paid to get it down and that was the loss of nine lives."

The hefty price to remove the flag was great, and had that not happened Powers says the flag would probably still be flying today, representing what supporters say is their Southern heritage.

It's a belief that leaves Powers wondering.

"Well, what is southern heritage? And who are southerners? Southerners are blacks as well as whites," Powers said. "Is that flag a symbol of black southern heritage? And if it is, it means the heritage of enslavement."

It's an historical truth Powers speaks candidly about with students that ever his classroom.

"Most students really don't and didn't see it as an issue of great urgency. But that's because probably they've never had it waved in their faces," he said.

And he has the proof to back that up, quoting Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

"The cornerstone of the Confederacy is slavery. You know, I didn't create that. He said it. And if it's good enough for him it's good enough for me," Powers said.

The flag now sits in a storage room at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum while lawmakers debate how it should be displayed. They say the General Assembly ignored a request for more than $3 million to expand the museum to display the flag, so it remains in storage for now.

With numerous displays of state and Lowcountry military history, Leland Summers proudly reflects on what they mean to him.

"When we see these flags, we know that these are the flags that our ancestors carried into battle," he said.

As commander of the state division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, Summers still disagrees with the removal of the flag.

"The position that Sons of Confederate Veterans took was this was not a matter of hate. It was not a matter of racism. It was a matter of history," he said.

Summers thinks it's wrong to link that symbol with the murders of nine people at Emanuel AME.

Now 12 months after the flag was removed, Summers says there's not been a change in attitudes among South Carolinians.

"The point that has been made is taking the flag down would create peace and unity. And eliminate divisiveness. It's only created more divisiveness," Summers said.

Proof of that came a week later, when dueling rallies converged on the Statehouse and ended in widespread violence across the city of Columbia.

There were Klan members on one side of the capitol and members of the Black Panthers on the other. Despite a large showing of law enforcement to keep the peace, some fights broke out and there were several arrests.

Luckily, a strong line of thunderstorms pushed people away from the Statehouse in search of shelter, an act of nature that probably prevented further bloodshed.

Secessionists called it the great betrayal and plan to return to the Statehouse on Sunday with a makeshift flagpole to raise the flag above the grounds again.

Even in Emanuel AME's own cemetery, a Confederate soldier is buried. It's one sign of how tangled these histories are.

Many believe the Confederate flag celebrates slavery. It's a time in history some would like to forget, but the stories should be shared.

The International African American Museum will do just that once it's built on the exact spot where thousands of enslaved Africans were brought to the South Carolina shore. And it will include a history of the Confederate flag.

"There are very few sacred spaces of African American history in the entire hemisphere but this is one of them where we are in Gadsden Wharf," said Michael Boulware Moore.

Moore stands at the helm of a new chapter in South Carolina's history.

"We're telling perhaps the other side of the story. The part of the story that for really too often has not been told," he said.

Some 100,000 West Africans were brought to Gadsden Wharf between 1783 and 1808. The majority of slaves who entered the United States entered through Charleston's port. It's a part of history Moore says needs to be told.

"I'm particularly focused and appreciate the role I think we can play with young children, particularly young African-American children, and helping to know that their ancestors, people that look just like them, have done great things, often at tremendous odds, that contributed to building this country and that they have a place here as well," he said.

The museum will have very broad appeal and wide doors welcoming everyone to experience a piece of American history, including the story of one of the nation's most divisive symbols.

"I think, you know, the Confederate flag is a part of African-American history. In part, it represents why African Americans are here. It will be in the museum. It certainly will be treated in an honest kind of a way," he said.

The museum will also include a genealogy station that will allow visitors to trace where their ancestors came from.

Groundbreaking on the International African American Museum is slated for the spring of 2017.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off