Calls to Drop Confederate Emblems Spread Nationwide

COLUMBIA, S.C. — What began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state capitol intensified with striking speed and scope on Tuesday into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, Internet shopping sites and retail stores.

The South Carolina legislature, less than a week after nine parishioners were shot to death in a black church in Charleston, voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds.

In Charleston, the board that governs the Citadel, the state’s 173-year-old military academy, voted, 9 to 3, to remove the Confederate Naval Jack from the campus chapel, saying that a Citadel graduate and the relatives of six employees were killed in the attack on the church.

In Tennessee, political leaders from both parties said a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and an early Ku Klux Klan leader, should be moved out of the State House. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, ordered that the Confederate flag no longer appear on license plates, and political leaders in Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee vowed to do the same.

 Image: A worker on Tuesday cleaned a statue of Jefferson Davis at the University of Texas in Austin.CreditTess Cagle/The Daily Texan, via Associated Press

And in Mississippi, the state’s House speaker, Philip Gunn, a Republican, called for taking a Confederate battle cross off the upper corner of his state’s flag, the only remaining state banner to display the emblem.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Mr. Gunn said in a statement that stunned many in Jackson, the capital, and was seen as adding a highly fraught issue with statewide elections there this year. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed,” Mr. Gunn said.

For decades, images of the Confederacy have been opposed by people who viewed them as painful symbols of slavery, racism and white dominance, and supported by those who saw them as historical emblems from the Civil War, reminders of generations-long Southern pride. Yet the new calls, after the church massacre last week, came with surprising force and swiftness. The demands straddled lines of partisanship and race, drawing support even from Southern conservatives who for years had defended public displays of the flag as a matter of regional pride. The movement also reached far beyond the political sphere, and beyond the South itself.

In Minnesota, activists demanded that a lake named after John C. Calhoun, a senator and vice president from South Carolina who was a proponent of slavery, be renamed. Amazon and eBay announced on Tuesday that they would no longer allow the sale of Confederate flags and similarly themed merchandise, joining Walmart and Sears, which had already done so. And messages were painted on Confederate statues in Charleston; Baltimore; and Austin, Tex., that read: “Black Lives Matter.”

“To see all of this happening, all of a sudden, it speaks of some fundamental change in the country,” said Kerry L. Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. “It is surprising in the sense that there have been calls for this for years. But it took this tragedy to spur this type of change.”

Dylann Roof, 21, the white man from South Carolina charged in the shootings during a Bible study last Wednesday inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had espoused a white supremacist philosophy, his friends said, and posed for photographs with the Confederate battle flag. The massacre combined with those images of Mr. Roof helped set off the nationwide re-examination of Confederate symbols.

On Tuesday, the vote in the South Carolina legislature was procedural, allowing lawmakers to consider a bill, not yet introduced, in the coming weeks. But in a legislature that had previously resisted passionate calls to remove the flag, its passage by huge margins was a watershed. Senator after senator invoked the memory of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator who was killed in the church. His Senate desk was draped in black cloth, a single white rose atop it.

The motion to consider a bill on the flag carried by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate, though one senator, Lee Bright, a Republican, said he would vote against removing the flag. In the House, the vote to take up the flag issue was 103 to 10.

“Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said State Senator Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag.

“I am not proud of this heritage,” said Mr. Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948.

 Image: Jazmine Belk and Jarrian Bufford dressed for the Confederate flag protest outside the State House in Columbia, S.C. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

Yet as proposals emerged to remove Confederate imagery in state after state, members of Confederate veterans’ organizations voiced concern about the flood of demands and said they felt misunderstood. The Confederate statues, the battle flag, even the naming of streets were a matter of remembering family members who had fought in the Civil War, they said.

“This is a feeding frenzy of cultural cleansing,” said Ben Jones, the chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group. “It’s an hysteria — we just want to fly this flag for family, for Grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”

Some opponents of removing all Confederate symbols from public places also tried to draw a distinction between flying the battle flag at a capitol, and displaying a statue or naming a park to commemorate individual soldiers. “People are calling for removing monuments and boulevard names in the name of racial sensitivity? Where does this end?” said Mr. Jones, who was a member of the United States House of Representatives and an actor on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show. “This is just dividing people like crazy.”

Efforts to remove images came from both parties, and some Republicans were among the most outspoken, including Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican, favors ending specialty plates with Confederate symbols and would not choose to keep a statue of Forrest in the Capitol given the limited number of Tennesseans honored there, his spokesman said.

Ryan Haynes, the Republican Party chairman in Tennessee, said that if he were asked to vote on the Forrest statue, he would choose to remove it, even as he warned Democrats against using it as a campaign issue.

“But at the end of the day, there are much bigger issues in Tennessee and in the Capitol,” he said in an interview. “What’s disturbing to me is that there are members of the Democratic Party who are seeking to use a tragedy to lead to distracting issues when we have big questions like education reform and job growth.”

The president of the Kentucky State Senate, Robert Stivers, a Republican, said in an interview that in light of the Charleston killings, he believed that a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a native Kentuckian, should be removed from the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. The statue is near a larger one of Abraham Lincoln, a proximity that made him uncomfortable, he said. 

Leaders in Washington, too, weighed in. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the minority leader, called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, but declined to take a position on the mascot of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas: the rebel, whose nickname is “Hey Reb.”

“I believe that the Board of Regents should take that up and take a look at it,” Mr. Reid said at a news conference. 

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the majority leader, also suggested that the Jefferson Davis statue should be moved.

“I think it’s appropriate, certainly in Kentucky, to be talking about the appropriateness of continuing to have Jefferson Davis’s statue in a very prominent place in our state capital,” he said. “Maybe a better place for that would be the Kentucky History Museum, which is also in the state capital.”

In Mississippi, where Mr. Gunn, the House speaker, has called for dropping the Confederate flag from the state flag and all but one statewide elected officeholder is Republican, not everyone was lining up with him. In 2001, political leaders there led an unsuccessful effort to replace the flag, which has been in use since 1894. In a referendum, 64 percent of Mississippi voters favored keeping the flag.

On Tuesday, the state’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, asserted in a statement that the violence in Charleston should not be linked to a flag. “What happened in Charleston is simply pure irrational evil,” he said. “There is no other description for this monster’s actions.  He is an individual that has allowed his mind and soul to be horribly twisted and disfigured by irrational hate.  No symbol or flag or website or book or movie made him evil — he was evil on his own.”

Mr. Reeves went on: “Flags and emblems are chosen by a group of people as a symbol of all that unites and ties the group together. The good and bad in our shared history, and all that we have learned from it, is something that ties us together.”

Copyright New York Times 2015

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