COLUMBIA -- Calling the Confederate flag a `red rag' that glorifies slavery and white supremacy, an estimated 46,000 people from several states gathered Monday at South Carolina's Capitol to urge lawmakers to take it off the dome.
It was the largest rally of any kind ever in Columbia, city officials said, and one of the biggest in the nation in nearly half a century for a civil rights cause, underscoring South Carolina's unique place in the nation. It's the last Southern state to fly an authentic version of the Confederate battle flag on the seat of state government, and it's the only state that hasn't made the Jan. 17 birthday of slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King an officially recognized holiday.
Both issues were behind the massive rally, which spread a sea of humanity over the capital city's downtown streets and across the Capitol lawn. There were so many people that it took an hour for them all to march five blocks from Zion Baptist Church to the Statehouse, where the Confederate flag waved in a cool breeze beneath flags of the nation and state, as it has since 1962 for a centennial celebration of the war between North and South.
As in a Southern heritage rally that drew 7,000 people less than 10 days ago, it was hard to tell how many of the marchers were South Carolinians with the clout to vote out lawmakers who don't deal with the flag to their liking. Only the Legislature can remove the flag now, although earlier members who put it there now say they never meant it to stay.
Martin Luther King III said at a prayer breakfast before the rally that it was a fitting tribute to his father, who preached a gospel of nonviolent resistance to unjust laws.
"This is the kind of thing we need to be doing on Martin Luther King's birthday," he said. "The flag is a terrible symbol that brings a lot of negative energy. And while we believe the flag has an appropriate place, it just does not belong on top of the capitol because it is not a sign of unification."
It is a matter of serious debate for state lawmakers, who all are up for re-election this year. Heritage groups say it represents the bravery of Confederate soldiers, who fought against tyranny against insurmountable odds. Others say it symbolizes the slavery and oppression that existed in the South they fought for.
Bishop John Hurst Adams, presiding bishop of South Carolina's African Methodist Episcopal Church, was blunt before Monday's cheering crowd.
"We are here to petition the South and South Carolina to lead the South to bring an end to the Civil War. It's been over a long time," and seceding from the Union -- which South Carolina was first to do -- was "sedition and treason."
State NAACP President James Gallman of Aiken said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has no desire to keep other people from celebrating their heritage, but the flag should not be "flying in a sovereign position at a place paid for by our tax dollars."
In the face of an economic boycott by the NAACP, which has resulted in about 100 organizations' canceling events in South Carolina because of the flag, some NAACP leaders have said they are not willing to accept a compromise that puts the flag by Confederate monuments that can be seen from public streets either. National Urban League President Hugh Price said it "belongs in a museum under glass so the people can see it, but its spirit will not escape into the real world again."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said it "can't be ignored that the flag was taken over by hate groups" and "became a banner of a segregation movement." With that past, it hurts the state, he said. NAACP national President Kweisi Mfume said displaying the flag on a seat of government says to the world that "Jim Crow Sr. is dead, but Jim Crow Jr. is alive and well."
Many people came to South Carolina, at the call of the NAACP and several other anti-flag organizations, Mr. Mfume said, to send a clear message that "bigotry, racism and racist symbols, whether a Confederate flag or burning cross, will not be allowed to go unchallenged."
The issue was volatile, but Monday's demonstration was not. Protesters, for the most part, stayed home. A solitary van with a Confederate flag flying out one window cruised the cordoned-off perimeter of the rally. A lone man carried a sign that pictured the American flag, identifying it as the flag under which slavery thrived, because Northerners owned the principal slave trades and ships. And one man, who identified himself only as "Mr. Stewart," was arrested after officers said he cursed them when asked to move to the edge of the crowd.
Out-of-state marchers in Monday's event bedded down in Columbia homes and churches rather than spend money in local hotels, in deference to the NAACP boycott. They included people such as 78-year-old Helen Bradford of Baltimore, who would have been home celebrating her 58th wedding anniversary but for strong feelings about the flag. The mother of 15 and veteran of civil rights marches since she was 15 herself said the Confederate flag had been where it is too long.
And at the rally, the Black Coaches' Association announced it is asking the National Collegiate Athletic Association not to schedule sporting events in South Carolina while the Confederate flag still flies.
Gov. Jim Hodges, who has been trying to work out a compromise behind the scenes, did not attend the rally but called it "a stunning outpouring of emotion." He said he will talk about the flag Wednesday night in his State of the State message.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.