South Carolina’s governor signed a law Thursday relegating the Confederate flag to the state’s “relic room” more than 50 years after the rebel banner was raised at the Statehouse to protest the civil rights movement.
Compelled to act by the slaughter of nine African-Americans in their church, Gov. Nikki Haley praised lawmakers for acknowledging that the long-celebrated symbol is too painful and divisive to keep promoting.
“The Confederate flag is coming off the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse,” Haley said. “We will bring it down with dignity and we will make sure it is stored in its rightful place.”
South Carolina’s leaders first flew a Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It remained there to represent official opposition to the civil rights movement.
Mass protests against the flag decades later led to a compromise in 2000 with lawmakers who insisted that it symbolized Southern heritage and state’s rights. They agreed then to move it to a 30-foot pole next to a Confederate monument out front.
But even from that lower perch, the flag was clearly visible in the center of town, and flag supporters remained a powerful bloc in the state.
The massacre 22 days ago of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church suddenly changed this dynamic, not only in South Carolina but around the nation.
Police said the killings were racially motivated. By posing with the Confederate flag before the shootings, suspect Dylann Storm Roof, who has not yet entered a plea to nine counts of murder, showed that the flag also has symbolized white supremacy and racial oppression.
Haley moved first, calling lawmakers to vote the flag down. Very quickly thereafter, Republican leaders in other states who have long cultivated the votes of Confederate flag supporters announced that Civil War symbols no longer deserve places of honor.
“These nine pens are going to the families of the Emanuel Nine,” Haley said after signing the bill into law. “Nine amazing individuals who have forever changed South Carolina history.”
The governor said the way the victims welcomed the gunman into their Bible study — and the forgiveness their survivors expressed to the suspect when he was arraigned in court days two days later — have inspired change nationwide.
“Nine people took in someone who did not look like them or act like them. And with true love and true faith and acceptance, they sat and prayed with him for an hour. That love and faith was so strong that it brought grace to them and the families,” Haley said.