As South Carolina honors victims, Alabama lowers its flags

AP News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2015 9:30 PM
As South Carolina honors victims, Alabama lowers its flags

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — State senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was carried Wednesday into the Statehouse where he served the people for nearly 20 years, becoming the first African-American since Reconstruction to rest in honor in the South Carolina Rotunda. Hours later, his congregation returned to the scene of a massacre, keeping up his work of saving souls.

To show their faith and restore their sanctuary, about 150 people packed into the basement of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Church where Pinckney and eight parishioners were shot exactly one week before.

"We decided to come together rather than pull apart," interim pastor Norvel Goff told the multiracial gathering of people who sat in neat rows of folding chairs Wednesday evening.

"It's our choice. It's our choice not to raise hell and tear up the city or tear up the streets because something tragic happened," Goff said.

Among those attending the session were several family members of shooting victim Myra Thompson.

"It is a powerful testimony that they are able to come," Goff said of Thompson's relatives, who were applauded by others in the audience.

The killings appear to be creating waves of soul-searching that are reverberating far beyond the historic black church and the state Capitol where Pinckney's widow and two young daughters met his horse-drawn carriage, evoking memories of black and white images of other slain civil rights figures five decades earlier.

In state after state, the Confederate symbols embraced by the shooting suspect have suddenly come under official disrepute. Gov. Nikki Haley started the groundswell Monday by calling on South Carolina lawmakers to debate taking down the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the Statehouse. But Alabama's governor was able to act much more swiftly, issuing an executive order that brought down four secessionist flags on Wednesday.

In Montgomery, where the Confederacy was formed 154 years ago and where Jefferson Davis was elected president, Gov. Robert Bentley, a conservative Republican, compared the banner to the universally shunned symbols of Nazi Germany, a stunning reversal in a region where the flag has played a huge cultural role.

The iconic Confederate battle flag in particular "is offensive to some people because unfortunately, it's like the swastika; some people have adopted that as part of their hate-filled groups," Bentley explained.

In South Carolina, making any changes to "heritage" symbols requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the state legislature. Prodded by Haley, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a debate later this summer, but few wanted to risk ugly words during a week of funerals.

As mourners filed by Pinckney's open casket, a makeshift drape over a huge second-floor window obscured the secessionist battle flag outside, only emphasizing how quickly this symbol of Southern pride has fallen into official disrepute.

The 41-year-old Pinckney, named lead pastor at "Mother Emanuel" in 2010, spent a lot of time in the lobby where, at one point in the day, five state senators and two former governors greeted mourners. Pinckney arrived at the Statehouse as a page, and in 1997 became the youngest African-American member elected to the House at that time. He became a senator in 2001.

Those honoring him also had to file past a statue of John C. Calhoun, the vice president who argued in the 1820s and 1830s that slavery was a "positive good," and that states should be able to pick the federal laws they want to follow.

Other conservative Republicans weighed in around the country Wednesday.

Both of Mississippi's U.S. senators and a U.S. representative endorsed removing the Confederate symbol from the flag the state has flown since Reconstruction, even though the state's voters decided to keep it back in 2001. Sen. Thad Cochran declared his intentions a day after Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat holding statewide office in Mississippi, said "You've got to ask yourself the question: What would Jesus do in this circumstance?"

Other lawmakers and activists took aim at symbols including a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee's Senate, a sculpture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Rotunda, the vanity license plates used by thousands of motorists and Minnesota's Lake Calhoun.

Many said change is imperative after shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man, was charged with nine counts of murder.

Roof was captured after a motorist spotted his Confederate license plate. Images on a website created in his name months before the attacks show him posing with the Confederate flag and burning and desecrating the U.S. flag. He also poses at Confederate museums, former slave plantations and slave graves. In an essay on the same website, the writer wishes every white person had a chance to brutalize blacks before the Civil War.

Roof has been appointed federal public defenders, and Justice Department officials are in agreement that the massacre satisfies the definition of a hate crime, which means federal charges are likely, according to a federal law enforcement official. The official spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, while declining to discuss details, said Wednesday that hate crimes are "the original domestic terrorism."

Businesses also have acted swiftly. Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears are among those saying Confederate merchandise will be gone from their stores and online sites. At least three major flag makers said they will no longer manufacture the rebel battle flag.

And Warner Bros. announced it will no longer license toy cars and models of the "General Lee," car with the Confederate flag on its roof that starred in the 1980s TV show "Dukes of Hazzard."

For many, especially in the South, this is all happening too fast.

Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the TV series, said these symbols are under attack by a "wave of political correctness" that is vilifying Southern culture. He said Confederate items will never be removed from the Cooter's Place stores he owns in Tennessee and Virginia.

A growing number of the Confederate symbols that appear all over the South have been defaced by graffiti.

The words "Black Lives Matter" were spray-painted Wednesday on a century-old Confederate memorial in St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where the phrase took root after a white officer killed an unarmed black man last August. In Charleston, the words "racist" and "slavery" were painted Tuesday on a monument to Calhoun, just a block from where the Emanuel AME church stands on Calhoun Street.

Historian Robert Chase says the vandalism reflects anger over deep-seated racism.

"The way Dylann Roof saw this was about recapturing the space of Charleston as a white space and the removal of African-Americans from that space," said Chase, a historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Rick Wade, a senior adviser on President Barack Obama's campaigns in South Carolina, wants more than flags to come down from statehouses.

"I want the flag to come down in our hearts. There has to be a deeper conversation," Wade said. "We as individuals have to look in the mirror and make sure you don't have a flag of hate waving in your heart."

The few lawmakers openly defending the flag include Republican Jonathon Hill, a freshman South Carolina representative who said it should remain above the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, and that addressing it now disrespects the victims' families.

"Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it's a very divisive issue," Hill said. "I think it could very well get ugly."

But as Alana Simmons made funeral arrangements for her grandfather, Emanuel AME pastor Daniel Simmons Sr., she said the relatives are glad to see South Carolina and other states taking action. "We appreciate the efforts of the state to remove the flag," she said.

Other viewings and funerals for the nine victims are scheduled through Monday. Obama plans to memorialize the victims Friday morning during Pinckney's funeral at the College of Charleston.

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Jonathan Drew and Meg Kinnard reported from Charleston, South Carolina. Other contributors include Susanne M. Schafer and Jack Jones in Columbia, Kim Chandler in Hackleburg, Alabama; Martin Swant in Montgomery, Alabama; Eric Tucker in Washington.