South Carolina's State Senate has voted 37-3 in favor of a bill to remove a Confederate battle flag that has flown on the grounds of the State Capitol for 50 years.
Throughout the morning Senators debated bill S. 879, which calls for the flag to be taken down and moved to an interior "relic room for appropriate display," while outside, dozens of protesters — both for and against the flag's removal — gathered on the lawns and streets outside.
The debate came days after a slew of other states and corporations across America jumped quickly to pull the Confederate flag — historically a symbol of the slave-holding antebellum South and later used by white supremacist groups — from government buildings and store shelves. But moves to remove the flag from the South Carolina state building have proven to be more problematic. The flag is currently protected under the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act, and previous motions for its removal from atop the capitol dome, where it flew from 1962 to 2000, and from the capitol grounds entirely, have been riddled with bureaucracy and controversy.
But support grew for the flag's removal from Capitol after last month's racially motivated shooting in Charleston. Numerous officials, including Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the flag's removal after a white gunman massacred nine black congregants at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church on June 17 in an effort to start what he called, "a race war."
Arguments in the Senate Monday sparked an unusual tangent. Republican State Senator Lee Bright, who started a petition to protect what he sees as a "symbol of our Southern heritage," began the session by attacking gay marriage, which was legalized nationwide last month.
"We can talk about a flag all we want, but the Devil is taking over this land," Bright said, shortly after lambasting the White House over its light display of gay pride colors — what he called "abomination colors" — across its exterior, following the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex unions.
Minutes later, the debate was brought back on track by Bright's colleagues, who went on to address the underlying concerns of some constituents who contend that the rebel flag is an important part of the state's history and should remain on the Capitol grounds.
Republican State Senator Larry Martin disputed that assertion, saying that the flag was "not displayed for 100 years on the statehouse grounds," but was only put up "offensively for the centennial celebration in the early 1960s. Then it was put up by resolution."
Martin said that the 1962 decision by an all-white state legislature to hoist the flag on top of the building was in direct opposition to the African-American civil rights movement that was taking root across the country, including "integration of the public schools," and other issues.
The flag remained there for nearly 40 years in the face of protests and NAACP boycotts, until the state finally signed off on a compromise bill that would move the flag down to the grounds, where it currently flies over a Confederate soldiers memorial.
"It is part of our history, like it is for the country, but it needs to be just that, part of our history. It is not part of our future," Martin said.
Lawmakers also mentioned their colleague, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a church pastor who was among those who died when 22-year-old Dylann Roof open fired on congregants. Roof, who carried the Confederate flag on his car license plate, has since been charged with nine counts of murder and is being held without bail.
"We lost a brother that I thought was the conscience of the Senate," Democratic state Senator Gerald Malloy said of Pinckney.
Democratic State Senator Vincent Sheheen, who co-sponsored the bill currently up for debate said: "Our friend was murdered because of the color of his skin"
"There is a quiet bigotry that still exists," he said. "We have to take whatever steps we can to begin to change that. [Taking the flag down] is one small step that reduces the culture of division."
Sheheen also addressed the battle flag's longstanding association with the slavery and institutionalized racism that permeated the Confederate States of America.
"If slavery were the original sin of America, then South Carolina is where we picked that fruit and ate it over and over again," he added. "We should not pass this bill because some national figures say so, or because we have been getting emails, or pressure one way or another. I am asking you to pass this bill… for a very simple reason, and it's because it's the right thing to do."
The current bill for the flag's removal required a two-thirds majority — or at least 30 Senators. It will now go to the House where it also needs two-thirds — or at least 75 representatives — to approve the bill before it moves forward to the Governor's desk.
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