COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate flag has no place on South Carolina Statehouse grounds, and it's past time to remove the symbol of hatred, a Republican state lawmaker said Saturday, three days after the shooting massacre at a black church 100 miles away.
Rep. Doug Brannon, first elected in 2010, said he's thought for years that the flag should come down, but it wasn't until Wednesday's deaths of nine parishioners in Charleston that he decided he could do something about.
"I just didn't have the balls for five years to do it. But when my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds," Brannon said. "It's not just a symbol of hate, it's actually a symbol of pride in one's hatred."
Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old jailed on nine murder charges for the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, briefly escaped in a car bearing Confederate insignia and can be seen in photos on social media with the flag. The nine shooting victims included the church's beloved pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
On Saturday evening, a large crowd rallied outside the Statehouse against the flag's presence, calling it a symbol of hatred, not heritage.
Police wouldn't give an estimate for attendance, but there appeared to be hundreds, if not thousands, of people. They chanted "take it down" and ended the rally by singing "We Shall Overcome." The rally lasted more than an hour and had several speakers.
"We must put that flag in its place as a part of history," said Sarah Leverette, a 95-year-old civil rights activist. Bringing it down, she added, means the Charleston victims did not die in vain.
In December, Brannon said, he will introduce a bill to move the flag and pole to the state's Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. December is the first opportunity for bills to be pre-filed for the legislative session that resumes in January.
Brannon said several Republican House members have called him and offered to co-sponsor the bill, but he told them not to. While he's certain a lot of Republicans will vote for his bill, he said, "I'm not willing to risk somebody else's political career."
In 1998, former Gov. David Beasley lost his bid for a second term after coming out in support of removing the flag from the dome.
"I was very proud of him for his position," Brannon said. "But I understand politics and why it landed where it did."
South Carolina was the last state to fly the Confederate battle flag from its Statehouse dome until a 2000 compromise put a square version of the flag — the South Carolina Infantry Battle Flag — on a 30-foot flagpole at the Confederate Soldier Monument directly in front of the Statehouse, along one of Columbia's busiest streets.
Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the state and U.S. flags on the dome lowered to half-staff Thursday — for nine consecutive days. There's been public outcry that the Confederate flag didn't move.
That's because the 2000 compromise specified the height and spot on the grounds where the flag was to fly from then on. And it mandated that any deviation requires the approval of the full Legislature.
Haley said Friday that she welcomes renewed talks, but they need to wait.
"There will be an appropriate time for policy discussions in the not too distant future," she said. "... Now is the time for healing our whole state, and most particularly the nine grieving families who will have burial services in the days ahead."
Speakers at Saturday's rally responded to Haley's message by saying that if anything is ever going to be done about the flag, now is the time — in the wake of the Charleston church shooting.
Since 2000, only one bill on the flag has been proposed. In 2007, the measure was introduced by Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, but it never received a hearing. It would have replaced the Confederate flag with the state flag, except on May 10 — Confederate Memorial Day. It became an official state holiday as part of the compromise, which also made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a permanent holiday.