South Carolina House opens debate over Confederate flag
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House opened what could be its final debate over the Confederate flag Wednesday, deliberating a proposal that might remove the banner from the Capitol grounds before the end of the week.
The House is under pressure to act after the state Senate passed its own measure, which is supported by Gov. Nikki Haley. But some Republicans proposed changes to the Senate bill that would preserve some kind of symbol in front of the Statehouse to honor their Southern ancestors.
Lawmakers who want to bring down the flag are fighting the proposals because any change to the Senate bill could delay by weeks or months the flag's removal, perhaps blunting momentum that has grown since nine black churchgoers were killed last month during Bible study at a historic African-American church in Charleston.
The House rejected four amendments to the Senate bill. All of them would take down the flag. One would have planted the state flower — yellow jasmine — where the flag currently flies on a flagpole by a monument to Confederate soldiers. Another would have set up a display case of historical flags by the monument.
Opponents of removing the flag talked about grandparents who passed down family treasures and lamented that the flag had been "hijacked" or "abducted" by racists.
Rep. Mike Pitts, who remembered playing with a Confederate ancestor's cavalry sword while growing up, said for him the flag is a reminder of how dirt-poor Southern farmers fought Yankees not because they hated blacks or supported slavery, but because their land was being invaded.
Those soldiers should be respected just as soldiers who fought in the Middle East or Afghanistan, he said, recalling his own military service. Pitts then turned to a lawmaker he called a dear friend, recalling how his black colleague nearly died in Vietnam.
"I'm willing to move that flag at some point if it causes a twinge in the hearts of my friends," Pitts said. "But I'll ask for something in return."
The debate began less than a day after the U.S. House voted to ban the display of Confederate flags at historic federal cemeteries in the Deep South.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said Democrats are united behind the Senate bill, which would remove the Confederate flag and the flagpole and send the banner to the state's Confederate Relic Room — the same resting place for the final rebel flag that flew over the Statehouse dome until it was taken down in 2000.
If House members back the Senate bill, Gov. Nikki Haley could quickly sign it into law, potentially bringing the flag down within days.
Any change to the Senate bill is unacceptable to the 46 Democrats in the 124-member House — a critical number because some Democrats will have to support any bill to take down the flag to reach the two-thirds threshold required by law, Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
Rutherford said any flag that goes up beside the monument to Confederate soldiers "will be the new vestige of racism."
In Washington, the vote by the U.S. House followed a brief debate on a measure funding the National Park Service, which maintains 14 national cemeteries, most of which contain graves of Civil War soldiers.
The proposal by California Democrat Jared Huffman would block the Park Service from allowing private groups to decorate the graves of Southern soldiers with Confederate flags in states that commemorate Confederate Memorial Day. The cemeteries affected are the Andersonville and Vicksburg cemeteries in Georgia and Mississippi.
In Columbia, if the state House amends the Senate bill, the Senate will have to agree with the changes or lawmakers will have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee.
If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, or the House rejects the Senate bill, the flag debate would probably be dead for this year.
Also Wednesday, state police said they were investigating an unspecified number of threats against South Carolina lawmakers debating the flag. Police Chief Mark Keel said lawmakers on both sides of the issue had been threatened, but he did not specify which ones.
After the flag was pulled off the Statehouse dome 15 years ago, it was called a settled issue. The banner was instead moved to a monument honoring Confederate soldiers elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.
But the flag debate regained urgency last month after state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others were fatally shot. A white gunman who police said was motivated by racial hatred is charged in the attack.
Rep. Joe Neal, a Democrat elected in 1992 who has been fighting to take down the flag ever since, told opponents he respected their position even if he disagreed with them and was glad the debate remained civil.
"I'm proud to see this body come to a point where collectively we can talk about it, where we can come to grips with it and do it in a fashion that makes South Carolina and the country proud," Neal said.
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