Decades of debate end with S.C. vote to remove Confederate flag

After 54 years flying at the South Carolina state house, the Confederate battle flag is coming down. The state legislature voted to remove the flag after pressure grew in the wake of a mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. William Brangham reports on how the change is resonating in Washington.

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    Now, after decades of debate that ended in an emotional late-night session in South Carolina's state capitol, the Confederate Battle Flag controversy is reaching its end in Columbia, if not in the rest of the nation.

    Correspondent William Brangham has our report.


    It was a moment that many, on both sides of the issue, thought would never come: the governor of South Carolina signing a bill to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the state capitol grounds.

    GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), South Carolina: We are a state that believes in tradition. We're a state that believes in history. We're a state that believes in respect. So we will bring it down with dignity, and we will make sure that it is put in its rightful place.


    Governor Nikki Haley's actions mean the flag will be lowered tomorrow and taken to a museum for display. All this follows 13 hours of debate in the state House that went into the early hours of this morning. Lawmakers from both sides gave impassioned pleas, many of them, like Representative Jenny Anderson Horne, in favor of bringing down the flag.

    JENNY HORNE (R), South Carolina State Representative: I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.


    Others, including Representative Eric Bedingfield, objected to its removal.

    ERIC BEDINGFIELD (R), South Carolina State Representative: I understand that there are differing views on what a symbol represents. It grieves me too that some people see that in a hurtful and dishonorable fashion.


    Ultimately, the measure passed overwhelmingly, just as it had in the state Senate.

  • MAN:

    The polls will close,. The clerk will tabulate. By a vote of 94-20, Senate Bill 897 receives third reading.


    That flag was first raised over South Carolina's capitol dome in 1961, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It stayed as a protest against the burgeoning civil rights movement.

    In 2000, state lawmakers moved it to its current spot on the capitol grounds, and the debate simmered on. Then came the massacre at the Charleston church last month. Nine people, including state Senator Clementa Pinckney, were gunned down.

    The accused shooter, Dylann Roof, had regularly posed with Confederate Flags, and police said he told them he hoped to trigger a race war. Within days, Governor Haley called for taking the flag off the state House grounds, and longstanding opposition crumbled.

    The events in South Carolina echoed today in Washington, in Senate Chaplain Barry Black's morning prayer.

    REAR ADM. BARRY BLACK (RET.), Senate Chaplain: We praise you for the courage of the South Carolina legislature.


    But, in the House, Republicans offered an amendment to a funding bill that would've allowed the flag to be flown at cemeteries operated by the National Park Service. That move triggered a fierce debate, with a wave of Democrats blasting the idea, like New York's Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.

    REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), New York: What exactly is the tradition of the Confederate Battle Flag that we're supporting? Is it slavery, rape, kidnap, treason, genocide, or all of the above?


    But Steve King, Republican of Iowa, stood to argue that this was an issue of free speech.

    REP. STEVE KING (R), Iowa: We can accept our history, we can be proud of our history, we can unify our country, we can grieve for those who were murdered, and we can preserve our First Amendment rights.


    Ultimately, House leaders pulled the bill from the floor, with House Speaker John Boehner urging calm.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: I actually think it's time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue. I do not want this to become some political football. It shouldn't.


    Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered legislation to remove all state flags containing any portion of the Confederate Battle Flag from the House side of the Capitol. Republicans blocked a vote on that measure, and sent it off to committee.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Washington.

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