Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

S.C. Officials Remove Confederate Flag From State House Grounds

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It took less than five minutes to bring down a symbol that's been fought over for 54 years. The Confederate battle flag was removed today from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. It happened on the same day the FBI admitted the alleged shooter in the Charleston church killings should not have been permitted to buy a gun. We'll talk more about the political implications of that in a moment, but first, Tom Bullock of member station WFAE has this report from Columbia.

TOM BULLOCK, BYLINE: The flag ceremony was due to begin at 10 a.m. It ran a little late, and some of the crowd of more than a thousand were restless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) It's 10 o'clock. It's 10 o'clock. It's 10 o'clock.

BULLOCK: Regina Brittangham was watching it all.

REGINA BRITTANGHAM: It's just good to see everybody of all race, religion, come together, and that makes you feel good.

BULLOCK: Brittangham was there with four generations of her family to witness something they'd long hoped would happen. Not far away stood Joy Jackson, draped in a Confederate flag.

JOY JACKSON: I do not think that flag should come down. It wasn't about slavery to begin with, and it should not come down. The least I can do is come wear the flag to represent my grandfather.

BULLOCK: Who was injured, she says, fighting for the Confederacy and what he believed in. At 10:05, both Jackson and Brittangham watched as seven members of the South Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guard, wearing crisp, gray uniforms, silently marched to the foot of the State Capitol building. They turned left in formation, marched across the grass of the Capitol grounds. Then ceremonially, they lowered the Confederate flag, folded it and marched it away to be placed in a nearby museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BULLOCK: People then began another chant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) USA, USA, USA.

BULLOCK: And that was it - no speeches, no politicians, no bands. But the simple ceremony belies the importance of the event.

LACY FORD: I think it's a very big deal. It's been a contested issue for virtually my entire lifetime as a native South Carolinian.

BULLOCK: Lacy Ford teaches history at the University of South Carolina. He too watched the furling of the Confederate battle flag today and the flurry of political activity in the past few weeks that made it possible.

FORD: The modern flying of the Confederate flag on the Capitol began in 1961 with the commemoration of the Civil War centennial in South Carolina. And I believe that the original intent was that the flag would be up there during the four-year centennial and then be taken down. But as we all know, that's not the way it ended up.

BULLOCK: Because the Civil War centennial coincided with the civil rights movement, he says opponents of the movement rallied behind the Confederate flag. Then last month, another fan of the flag walked into an African-American church in Charleston and allegedly gunned down nine black parishioners. Professor Ford says the shootings broke the state's heart. But when families of some of the victims forgave the shooter that galvanized the state to move forward.

FORD: You have to sort of push the fringe aside, pull the center together and find common ground with as many people as you can. And I think if South Carolina does that, it can better address some of the issues that it currently has, like the quality of opportunity in education and accessibility and affordability of health care.

BULLOCK: Ford says there are bigger issues than the flag. He says removing it is an important symbol, but it doesn't end racism.

FORD: I would not go so far to say that we're beyond it or past it, or that it won't claim its victims in the future, and that unfairness and inequality won't continue to exist and have to be struggled against. But I do think it testifies to a different state of affairs in South Carolina.

BULLOCK: Ford says the fact the Confederate flag no longer flies in front of the Statehouse is an important marker of change in the state, and others agree, which is why an hour after the ceremony, some were still singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Pump, pump it, pump it up.

BULLOCK: For NPR News, I'm Tom Bullock in Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.