GWEN IFILL: Nearly 50,000 people gathered on the streets of downtown Columbia, South Carolina today, all drawn by this sight on top of the statehouse dome: The U.S. flag, the state's palmetto flag, and the stars and bars, a symbol of the confederacy. The dispute over the flag-- supporters say it is a symbol of the state's heritage, opponents say it glorifies slavery-- has long been contentious. South Carolina is the only state still flying the flag over government property, and the only state that does not observe civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a holiday.
SPOKESMAN: Basically what we want to show is support that gives a national presence, that shows that people outside of South Carolina are just as concerned as the local people.
GWEN IFILL: The confederate flag was first raised over the state capitol in 1962, as part of a centennial celebration of the Civil War. But black leaders in South Carolina and around the country have denounced the display, calling it a deliberately offensive celebration of pre-Civil War, pro-slavery sentiment. Last year, the NAACP called for a boycott of South Carolina's $14 billion tourist industry, and estimates more than 90 groups have canceled events. Last week, about 6,000 people, some dressed in period costume, marched in support of the flag. Many argue that it is a fitting tribute to confederate civil war veterans, and have defeated past efforts to remove it. The flag's future will be decided by the state legislature, which began its six-month session last week.
Heritage and history
GWEN IFILL: Now, two sides of a difficult issue: In South Carolina. Dwight James, executive director of the state NAACP, took part in today's march. Terry Haskins, a state representative and speaker pro tem of the House, watched from a distance. Mr. Haskins, what does the confederate flag mean to you?
TERRY HASKINS: Well, the confederate flag means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Obviously the crowds of people who came to South Carolina today to demonstrate see the flag as a symbol of racism and hatred, but there are also thousands and thousands of honest, God-fearing southerners who see the flag as a symbol of honor and heritage and respect. The unfortunate thing about what's going on now in South Carolina is the manner in which the economic sanctions were placed on the state of South Carolina. The resolution which called for the flag to be removed was adopted in July of last year after the general assembly was out of session. It demanded that the flag had to come down by January 1 or else economic sanctions would be placed on the state of South Carolina. The leaders of the NAACP knew that the general assembly was not in session during that time and that constitutionally we could not take any action. So it was really not fair to put that kind of a standard up that couldn't be met and then to impose sanctions for not meeting them.
GWEN IFILL: Dwight James, you spent the day today as part of that crowd of 50,000. What does that flag on top of the capitol mean to you?
DWIGHT JAMES: Well, the flag represents to many African Americans like myself the institution of slavery, an idea about the confederacy, that it stood for the continuation of slavery, the segregation of African Americans in this country, and it's also associated with many modern-day hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and violent groups that see African Americans as unworthy of American citizenship.
GWEN IFILL: Is your objection, Mr. James, to the flag being on top of the capitol or the flag flying anywhere at all?
DWIGHT JAMES: Our objection has been stated clearly, and that's to the flag being represented in positions of sovereignty in the state. And here we have the confederate flag flying above the capitol, the people's house in Columbia.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Haskins, people talk about southern heritage as a reason for preserving the flag. Is it possible that heritage is one of those things like beauty that's in the eye of the beholder?
TERRY HASKINS: Well, absolutely heritage is in the eye of the beholder, and so is the location of the flag. There's a legitimate argument that the flag should not be flying on the capitol dome because it doesn't represent the sovereign government under which we govern in South Carolina. But the NAACP is not being totally honest in their demands. They have said that they want it taken off the dome. We've suggested that the flag be policed on the confederate soldier's monument on the statehouse grounds. That would be within its historical context. It is a memorial that's been in place for over 130 years. But so far the leaders of the NAACP have rejected that notion, insisting rather that the flag be put out of view and be retired in shame and disgrace and that those southerners who hold it to be a symbol of great honor would have to be disgraced in their feelings about the flag.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Dwight James, why not just remove the flag to another location of the confederate memorial?
Economic sanctions vs. public policy
DWIGHT JAMES: Well, let's, first of all, set the record straight. We've had many opportunities in South Carolina to remove the flag. And our leaders in the state senate and the statehouse have just failed to act. The resolution came about as a result of much study, much preparation on the part of the association, and that is the state conference in South Carolina took the resolution to New York and had the delegates there consider and approve unanimously the action that called for economic sanctions. And now we find ourselves in a position where over that six-month period, we had no movement by the part of the leadership in South Carolina, not to take the flag down, not even having substantive discussions along that manner. Now, we have not taken up any discussions or come up with any position with regard of placement of the flag. We have at this point been insisting and consistent and persistent in our position that thing from should not fly in positions of sovereignty. And that's where we stand.
GWEN IFILL: Terry Haskins, it sounds like you're more upset about the idea of the fact that the NAACP is making these sanctions, these demands on the state than of the idea of removing the flag itself.
TERRY HASKINS: You have to understand that there's an important principle of governing involved; and that is that it would be bad public policy for any legislative body to take action based upon economic threats or sanctions. That's just a bad precedent to set when dealing with any special interest groups.
GWEN IFILL: Was that precedent not set elsewhere in the south during the civil rights movement with lunch counter boycotts in the south?
TERRY HASKINS: I think that precedent was set, and I was not in the legislature back then obviously. But unfortunately, most of the civil rights legislation had to be forced upon the South by the federal government. But in this case, just four years ago, the Republican governor of South Carolina proposed bringing the flag off the dome and putting it on the confederate soldier's monument. I stood with him. I urged that proposal to be adopted. The NAACP did not come out and help. They didn't lift one finger. They would not support a Republican governor making that proposal. So much of this is about politics and about dividing people rather than trying to find solutions that bring people together, and that's an unfortunate aspect of this whole sanction and boycott.
GWEN IFILL: Dwight James, people who support the flag say that this march today was essentially a stunt, a way of getting attention rather than a way of finding a solution to a problem.
DWIGHT JAMES: Well, I think we hardly needed a stunt to get attention. I think this issue has focused the attention of the nation and the world on South Carolina over the last several months. So attention couldn't be the motive. The people of South Carolina wanted to show and demonstrate as good constituents that we want action on this issue. Now, if my co-guest here tonight might interpret that as being a threat, just constituents acting out their basic right to let their legislators know what they want to see happen within the state, I think he's being disingenuous.
GWEN IFILL: Terry Haskins, go ahead, respond.
TERRY HASKINS: I never said that holding a rally is a threat. The threat was when the NAACP national organization asked people across the country to not come to South Carolina, don't spend your tourist dollars here, don't bring your family reunions to South Carolina. Those are the kind of economic threats that I'm talking about. And the real problem here is public policy. We have asked the NAACP to lift the boycott or even delay it when we were faced with the threat of a boycott, if we didn't act by January 1, knowing that we couldn't even act, under law we couldn't act in any way, we asked them to lay the boycott, allow men and women of goodwill to sit down together, negotiate and try to work out a compromise that would bring the flag off the dome, satisfy the concerns of the members of the NAACP, but still treat thing from with honor so they that you don't have to insult the holders of great southern heritage in South Carolina.
GWEN IFILL: Dwight James, has there been any kind of fallout, any kind of way you can measure the effect of your economic boycott?
DWIGHT JAMES: Well, we measure its effectiveness in, I guess, a few ways -- in terms of the number of groups that have canceled, in terms of the impact that we see in terms of the economy of the state, and the continuing interest from people around the country and around the world in this particular issue.
GWEN IFILL: Dwight -- I'm sorry, Terry Haskins, one of the problems with issues about race in America is that things get rhetorically flamboyant. At some point a supporter of thing from at a pro flag rally last week, a state senator referred to the NAACP as the national association for the advancement of retarded people, and when he was asked to apologize, he said he apologized only to the retarded people of the world.
TERRY HASKINS: That's very unfortunate.
GWEN IFILL: How does that advance your argument?
TERRY HASKINS: It doesn't advance the argument. It doesn't advance the argument anymore than an African American senator saying last week, who said that if the flag doesn't come down, Columbia is going to burn like it did under Sherman. Neither of those -- that kind of rhetoric doesn't help anybody. What we really need is for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, lift the sanctions and the threats and come together in an air of mutual respect so that we can try to work something out that's good for all the people.
GWEN IFILL: Will there be a vote in the statehouse this year on this issue?
TERRY HASKINS: I expect there probably will be a vote. I don't know how soon it will come. But I think it would be very unfortunate if the legislature was forced to take action under threats of economic sanctions. I think that's bad public policy.
GWEN IFILL: And, Dwight James, given what you've heard Terry Haskins say, what is your sense about whether there will be a vote this year and what the outcome will be?
DWIGHT JAMES: We anticipate that there will be a vote, however, we must also recognize that we wouldn't be at this particular point in discussions had it not been for economic sanctions, because we haven't gotten to the table to negotiate, to discuss, and there was opportunity last year to take action if there was really a will to take action. We built into this strategy several windows of opportunity where we had an opportunity for the governor, an opportunity for the general assembly to move in a direction that indicated that we were going to move toward resolving this issue. But we saw no progress.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. That will have to be the last word. Thank you very much, Dwight James and Terry Haskins in South Carolina.
DWIGHT JAMES: Thank you.
TERRY HASKINS: Thank you.