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Calls to Remove Confederate Flag Follow South Carolina Murders

The historically divisive flag is still flying high on the grounds of the state's capitol, in spite of the racially motivated killing of 9 black churchgoers on Wednesday.

by Liz Fields
Jun 19 2015, 5:45pm

Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

As the city of Charleston, South Carolina reels from the massacre of nine black church congregants in a racially motivated shooting Wednesday night, calls have strengthened for the removal the Confederate flag from the state house in Columbia and other government buildings across America.

The two flags that fly atop the South Carolina State House were lowered to half-mast Thursday in the hours following the shooting. Both the South Carolina palmetto flag and American flag will remain lowered halfway for nine days in memory of the nine victims who were shot as they attended Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church — one of the city's oldest and most prominent black churches.

On the grounds of the capitol, however, the Confederate flag remained at full mast in the wake of the killings, as authorities took suspected shooter Dylann Storm Roof into custody and charged him with nine counts of murder. The flag is still flying high, despite calls for its removal altogether, because the decision to lower it must be approved by the General Assembly. It is attached to the pole and is not on a pulley system.

"In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag," a state press secretary told ABC6. "Only the General Assembly can do that."

Related: Alleged South Carolina Shooter Dylann Storm Roof Charged With Nine Counts of Murder

The Confederate flag — historically a symbol of white supremacy — has a difficult history in South Carolina. It is currently protected under the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act, and 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.

In 1962, an all-white state legislature voted to hoist the flag on top of the building in direct opposition to the African-American civil rights movement that was taking root across the country. It 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.

Yet the topic remains as divisive as ever. To many, the Confederate flag is a symbol of the slavery and institutionalized racism that permeated the Confederate States of America, a rebel union that existed between 1861 and 1865 during the American Civil War. To others, it is a symbol of Southern heritage and has been defended as such, despite the flag still being flown in a number of establishments in America's South where owners have openly suggested that blacks are not welcome. It has also been widely embraced by white supremacist groups in South Carolina, of which there are currently 16 in operation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Roof's car carried the flag on its license plate. On social media, the 21-year-old was photographed sporting a jacket bearing the flags of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa, both have which have been taken up as symbols of white supremacy.

Related: Video of Suspected South Carolina Shooter's Court Exit Emerges After He Waives Extradition

The Emmanuel AME church has a troubled past with slavery and racism. Organized in 1816, the church was burned to the ground six years later after founder Denmark Vesey tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. Parishioners continued to worship underground until after the Civil War.

Against this context, and with the racial motivation of Roof's alleged murder of nine churchgoers impossible to escape — one survivor recalled him saying, "you've raped our women and you are taking over the country," and CNN reported on Friday that he had confessed to authorities that he intended to inflame a "race war" — the decision to keep the Confederate flag flying at the state capitol has been baffling to some and outright offensive to others. 

Numerous petitions to take down the flag from the capitol have sprung up since the shooting. One titled "Remove the Confederate Flag From All Government Places" had already received more than 120,000 signatures as of 1:30 PM Friday.

Related: The Supreme Court Says Texans Aren't Entitled to Confederate Flag License Plates

"The Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern pride but rather a symbol of rebellion and racism," petitioners wrote. "On the heels of the brutal killing of nine Black people in a South Carolina church by a racist terrorist, it's time to put that symbol of rebellion and racism behind us and move toward healing and a better United States of America!"

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Texans are not entitled to a specialty license plate that bears the flag, which had been rejected by the state, despite the plaintiff's arguments that displaying the flag was a matter of free speech. The court said that the plates represented "government speech" rather than "private speech," which excludes it from First Amendment attack.

"As a general matter," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, "when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy or to take a position."

Whether flags on government buildings or land represent government speech or free speech is currently a decision for South Carolina's General Assembly, which has yet to comment on whether the Confederate flag will be removed from its lawns.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields