Early Thursday morning last week, the South Carolina House of Representatives agreed that the Confederate battle flag will leave its place of prominence on the grounds of the Capitol and take up residence in the Relic Room of the state museum in Columbia.
The victorious state representatives did not seem to be in a mood for celebration at the end of a very long day of sometimes passionate debate. By 1 a.m. the following morning they were tired, and any exuberance was suppressed by the price paid in blood by Clementa Pinckney and the eight souls massacred at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston.
In one of the more callous moments of the evening, in response to bipartisan calls for “grace,” GOP Majority Leader and Charleston State Rep. James H. Merrill, said “I don’t know shinola about grace.” His amendments were aimed, he said, at giving “a little bit of solace to both sides.” Merrill also proposed that the Confederate Relic Room get a state budget appropriation in 2016.
The Black legislators acquitted themselves as statesmen. Rep. Joe Neal gave a brief history lesson about the one million enslaved Africans in South Carolina at the time of the Civil War. He also refuted amendments calling for memorials to Blacks who fought for the Confederacy with the fact that there were very few Black Confederates, because the measure was not approved until one month before Appomattox.
According to Rep. John King, “People have threatened that I won’t be re-elected. The seat does not belong to me. It belongs to the people of District 49. I am not proud to be a South Carolinian. Make South Carolina an inviting place for all people.”
Added Rep. Cezar McKnight, “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot wave two flags. It is our flag, the flag of the United States of America. Put the Confederate banner it its proper place in the relic room.”
The media star of the debate was Rep. Jenny Horne from Charleston, who attracted much well-deserved attention as a descendant of Jefferson Davis, the man who served as president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
“I’m sorry, I have heard enough about heritage. But that does not matter. It is about the people of South Carolina. I will tell you that I have it on good authority that the world is watching this debate,” Horne said.
“We need to follow the example of the Senate and remove this flag today because this issue is not getting any better with age. Speaking on behalf of the people of Charleston, this flag offends my friends. I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful.”
Horne was not without opposition. Her fellow Charlestonian, James Merrill, sarcastically referred to appreciating colleagues who were “treading (sic) on emotion.”
Rep. Jenny Horne and House Majority Leader Rep. James Merrill, both Republicans, went at it. Merrill insisted on attempting to amend the Senate version of the bill to delay removal of the flag, while Horne kept her promise to attempt to table the amendment, but she lost.
“Doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. Find the courage to do the right thing for the people of South Carolina,” said Horne.
Rep. Bedenfield proved just how hard doing the right thing could be when he proposed the creation of a new South Carolina state flag that would honor veterans who fought to defend this state against an “over oppressive federal government.”
Fortunately there were also a few moments of levity sprinkled throughout the long night. Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter asked for order, but when she didn’t get it she then scolded the speaker, saying, “With this crowd at this hour, you are going to have to bang that gavel harder, baby.” Rep. David Mack told his colleagues, “Slavery was a perfect business model — free labor. But it only works if you don’t have a moral compass.”
The Black legislators seemed to be running the show. Rep. Lonnie Hosey spoke quietly but directly to Republican Rep. Rick Quinn when he said, “I need you to be a hero.” Quinn represents Lexington, SC, the home district of Dylann Roof, the confessed Charleston mass murderer.
Quinn verbally bristled when someone suggested that he did not understand the plight of the families who lost loved ones in the massacre. Finally, at the end of the evening, Quinn acquiesced and offered his own amendment up to be tabled, opening a path to adoption of a “clean bill” without amendments that would not require a House/Senate conference committee. Quinn will have some hard questions to answer when he returns to Lexington, a mostly White suburb of Columbia.
A turning point had been reached near midnight when Rep. James Smith from Richland took to the podium. Smith is that rarest of political species, a White male Southern Democrat elected official under the age of 70. Smith hinted that a compromise was in the works and added to our understanding of Reconstruction history when he said, “Flying the flag dishonors General Robert E. Lee and violates the terms of surrender at Appomattox.”
Then he proceeded to outline a new aspect of the debate:
“For nearly 100 years, we got along fine without the Confederate flag. It was brought out in 1960 as a middle finger to the federal government. ”