SC Senate OKs Confederate flag removal; House vote ahead

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Posted: Jul 07, 2015 9:14 PM
SC Senate OKs Confederate flag removal; House vote ahead

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate gave its final approval Tuesday to removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds, but across the hall in the House, Republicans quietly sought a way to make a last stand to preserve some kind of symbol honoring their Southern ancestors at the Statehouse.

The House was scheduled to begin debate Wednesday on the bill to take down the flag and its pole and send the banner to the state's Confederate Relic Room. Gov. Nikki Haley and business leaders support the proposal.

To stress the chamber's unity after Tuesday's 36-3 vote, senators invited the widow of their slain colleague Clementa Pinckney to the floor. She stood just inside the door in a black dress, only a few feet from her husband's desk, which was draped in black cloth with a single white rose on top. Every member stood as she entered and later walked up to her, offering condolences.

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 swiftly gained urgency last month after Pinckney and eight other black people were fatally shot at a historic African-American church in Charleston. A white gunman who police said was motivated by racial hatred is charged in the attack.

Dylann Roof was indicted Tuesday on nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder and a weapons charge.

Haley and other conservatives have said they called for the flag to come down in part because of photos showing Roof posing with the Confederate symbol.

If the House goes along with the Senate's bill, the flag could be removed by the end of the week. But if the House changes the bill, either the Senate would have to agree with the changes or lawmakers would have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee, possibly delaying action for weeks. Several senators said the lopsided vote shows they do not want their bill to change.

Many Republicans in the House insist the flag will come down because of its association with racist groups. But they think lawmakers should at least discuss replacing it with a different flag that flew over Confederate troops.

Rep. Mike Pitts plans to propose several possible flags for the pole and believes he has a majority to pass them. Completely removing the flagpole, he said, would scrub history, which includes family members from his Laurens County home and from the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia.

"I guess my plan for tomorrow is to be a lot like my ancestors were at the Bloody Angle," Pitts said, referring to part of a Virginia battlefield where fighting raged for nearly 24 hours in 1864, leaving Confederate dead stacked four deep behind their fortifications. "And fight until I have nothing left to fight with."

Pitts' favorite amendment would place on the pole the flag of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers regiment, which is a blue flag similar to the state flag with its Palmetto tree and crescent moon but with a wreath around the tree. Similar art is etched on a wall inside the Statehouse, Pitts said.

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.

"It will become the new symbol," Rutherford said of any flag that goes up beside the monument to Confederate soldiers. "It will be the new vestige of racism."

Asked if the GOP was using the idea of an alternative flag simply to avoid bringing down the existing banner, Democratic Rep. Joe Neal, elected in 1992, said he thinks most Republicans are willing to remove the flag and pole entirely.

"I think a majority wants to do this. There is a minority that is dead set against it," Neal said. "We'll see when that vote comes up who they are."

Tuesday's Senate vote lacked drama, nearly matching the vote from the day before. But minutes after, the chamber hushed and all 45 senators stood up as Jennifer Pinckney entered.

On June 17, she locked herself in an office with one of the slain senator's two daughters as the gunman fired dozens of shots in her husband's Emanuel African Methodist Church. Since then, her only appearances have been at her husband's viewing and funeral.

She did not speak publicly at the Capitol. Instead, family attorney and Clementa Pinckney's fellow senator Gerald Malloy spoke on her behalf. Malloy said he was proud that the Senate followed the example of the Emanuel AME families who offered forgiveness to the gunman. He cited lawmakers' willingness to accept that the Confederate flag is a painful symbol to many South Carolinians who are not in their party or of their race.

"She wanted to show her gratitude," Malloy said of Pinckney's widow. "As you can see, Clementa shined on her as well. His grace is contagious. It is contagious throughout this state."

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .

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Associated Press Writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.