Originally created 09/12/99

State grapples with flag debate



AIKEN -- When the NAACP called for an economic boycott of South Carolina until it lowers the Confederate flag from its Statehouse dome, a question in some minds was why it would stop at the state line.

Georgia and Mississippi both incorporate the Confederate battle flag into their state flags, and both states have struggled with internal controversies because of it. Both have faced efforts to remove the emblem.

But South Carolina is the only state that flies an original version of the flag over its Capitol -- the seat of government that represents all its citizens.

For years, that has rankled James Gallman of Aiken, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He was elated when the national organization called for economic sanctions against his home state. It happened at the urging of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP.

Mr. Gallman said black tourists shouldn't be expected to spend their money in a state still flaunting a flag that represents their ancestors' slavery and, more recently, resistance to blacks' battles for civil rights.

"We can't in good conscience come to a state and pour in money while those persons in power fail to act on our request to take down the flag," he said when the sanctions were passed in New York in mid-July.

The flag was placed on the Capitol dome in 1962, when the Legislature decided to commemorate the Civil War centennial. And it never came down.

A decade after that flag -- an elongated version of the square Confederate battle flag, known as the naval jack -- was raised, two black members were elected to the House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction.

A groundswell began for taking it down. Its detractors argued that the centennial was long over and that its reason for flying over the Statehouse was done. Its supporters said the Legislature put it there and that only the Legislature could take it down.

Travis Medlock, then state attorney general, ruled there was no legal reason the flag could not be removed.

In 1994, the state conference of the NAACP threatened economic sanctions if the flag remained. For the first time, lawmakers talked about compromise, and the Senate approved a plan to raise two other Confederate flags -- there were five in all -- beside monuments on the Capitol grounds.

House members twice refused to concur, and that session of the Legislature adjourned with nothing else done.

In the summer of 1994, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and 23 business and community leaders filed a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against flying the Confederate naval jack over the Statehouse. Flag opponents marched in Myrtle Beach, still threatening economic sanctions if the banner remained.

Republicans put the question on their primary ballot; 76 percent opposed removing the flag.

Protesters marched again that November at Hilton Head but said they would wait for the courts to rule on the Coble lawsuit before imposing economic sanctions on the state.

By May 1995, the courts had not ruled, but lawmakers did. Knowing the flag would come down for Statehouse renovations, they voted to ensure it wouldn't stay down. The new law gave only the Legislature authority to bring down the flag from the dome or remove any emblems from either chamber.

It meant that citizens offended by the flag on the dome also had to accept it in both chambers of the Legislature.

A month later, the state Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit.

In 1996, then-Gov. David Beasley proposed moving the flag to a monument on the Statehouse grounds -- a plan that cost him votes when he ran for re-election in 1998. Five hundred pastors who had marched in favor of his idea as the Legislature reconvened in January 1997, ultimately could not persuade their rebel flocks to agree at the polls.

The House of Representatives rejected the Beasley plan, choosing a referendum instead. The Senate never voted on that bill.

This summer, the NAACP kept the promise it made five years ago.