Originally created 01/12/00

Lawmakers demand apology for flag-flap comments



COLUMBIA - Moments after a bell summoned South Carolina lawmakers back into session Tuesday, the Senate got an emotional taste of how the Confederate flag on the Capitol dome is affecting business this year when two members demanded apologies from each other for flag-related affronts -- and did not get them.

The personal attacks were rare in the state Senate, which usually follows a gentleman's agreement not to get into personalities, even in heated debates.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, insisted that Mount Pleasant Republican Arthur Ravenel apologize for a remark he made Saturday to nearly 7,000 people at a pro-flag rally. Mr. Ravel called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has economic sanctions against South Carolina aimed at furling the battle flag, "the National Association for Retarded People."

He said the remark was an insult to everyone he held dear, including a 73-year-old aunt who had died hours earlier, not long after leaving her death bed to join the NAACP for the first time in her life.

Mr. Ravenel, whose adult son William has Down syndrome, said it was a slip of the tongue because his mind was on a state meeting of the National Association for Retarded People he had to attend the next day when his turn to speak came at "a very emotional time." He's a former state president of that organization. He said he'd apologize for the unintentional remark after Mr. Jackson apologized for an explosive ad supporting the NAACP boycott, which has prompted more than 200 organizations to cancel meetings they'd planned in South Carolina.

Several proposals are under consideration. Some lawmakers say they won't consider moving the flag or taking it down altogether until the NAACP sanctions are dropped. On Tuesday, 34 Republicans signed a pledge not to discuss the issue until the NAACP backs off.

James Gallman of Aiken, state president of the NAACP, said that's not going to happen.

It's a make-or-break, intense legislative year -- the second in a two-year session. That means that bills failing to make it this year are dead or back at square one of the process in 2001, even if already passed by one chamber.

There are nearly 2,500 bills in the hopper, more than 2,000 of them introduced last year.

Lawmakers in both houses say they're fearful the flag issue might overshadow other work at hand. "We're all suffering from flag fatigue," House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, said. "We've got to focus on other issues."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.