Originally created 05/19/00

S.C. strikes flag deal



COLUMBIA - The defiant red flag that Confederate troops fol-lowed into some of history's blood-iest battles is leaving the South Carolina Statehouse dome July 1 to fly near a monument to soldiers who fought under its starry cross.

The state Legislature voted Thursday, under the critical gaze of a watching world, to bring the flag down from the dome and out of the House and Senate chambers. International attention had focused on South Carolina since last year, when the NAACP announced an economic boycott it said would bring to its knees the last Southern state still flying a Confederate banner over its seat of government.

Thursday's vote technically did what the National Association for Advancement of Colored People asked for, removing the flag from its place of sovereignty and putting it in one of historical context. But that place also is more visible to passers-by, and state NAACP President James Gallman of Aiken said it still implies sovereignty. Because the soldiers monument is in front of the Statehouse, so will be the battle flag.

"They can't fly that flag there and expect black people to say, `Well, at least we got it off the dome,'ƒ" Mr. Gallman said.

Mr. Gallman said the legislative action blind-sided the NAACP and its allies, who had expected the flag to come up Tuesday. That would have given them the weekend to contact lawmakers and twist arms.

Gov. Jim Hodges, who was in the northern South Carolina town of Gaffney when the Legislature voted, said he expects the boycott to fizzle now despite the NAACP's threat to expand it.

The governor said earlier he would sign any agreement the House and Senate reached. The bill will be on his desk next week.

"I look forward to signing this bill and ending this debate," he said.

Moving a more authentic flag to the soldiers monument was considered a compromise to hardcore lawmakers who didn't want it moved at all, leading to contentious debate over minute details. In the end, after months of controversy, the Republican-controlled House voted 66-43 and the Democrat-controlled Senate voted 37-8 for a bill hammered out by a conference committee in only an hour.

It happened after a feisty House of Representatives voted 111-2 not to accept Senate amendments to the original bill, although most lawmakers called them minor, and senators just as stubborn insisted their changes be made.

After that vote, Wagener Republican Rep. Charles Sharpe, a holdout to keep the flag flying, said he was elated. He said there was a chance that all deals would fall through, and the Confederate flag would continue to fly on the dome.

It was a tense day for Clearwater Democrat Tommy Moore, who had crafted the original compromise in the Senate, only to see it appear to be crumbling. He spent much of Thursday trying to hold the compromise together.

"It was kind of like herding cats," he said.

The main disagreements were over the height of the pole for the square battle flag edged in white, the version that South Carolina troops also carried. The Senate compromise called for 20 feet, and the House insisted on 30. A Senate amendment, which the House would not accept, called for 25. The House also wanted the flag illuminated at night and tough penalties enacted for desecrating it or any other commemorative emblem on the Capitol grounds.

House conferees ultimately agreed to light the monument, not the flag, and accept existing criminal penalties for defacement. Senate conferees agreed to the 30-foot pole.

Mr. Moore, who was not on the conference committee itself, said the struggle appeared to be over tiny details but actually was an effort to assure the embattled flag was not dishonored.

"I hope it brings finality," he said of the final bill. "I hope it brings healing."

Eighty-year-old Democrat John Drummond of Greenwood, Senate president pro tempore, left the Capitol exhausted when the drama was done.

Mr. Drummond, who has at times neared tears as he pleaded for resolution of the flag controversy, said he had feared there were House members who wouldn't agree to anything.

House Speaker David Wilkins said it might have looked that way, but the House deliberately threw the bill to a conference committee when it appeared votes were eroding earlier in the day.

He said he was proud of the House and pleased with the outcome.

"For us this is finality, and we are not looking back," he said. "We are moving ahead on issues like education, infrastructure and tax relief."

The NAACP boycott was not an issue in the vote, he said. "What the NAACP has done by rejecting every proposal for the last six months was take themselves out of the loop," he said. "They were no longer players at the table."

National NAACP President Kweisi Mfume dismissed Thursday's vote as political expediency.

"The governor and the Legislature have taken a political position. The NAACP has a principled position," Mr. Mfume said.

Although some sports events and festivals such as Charleston's famed Spoleto have had players and performers back out in support of the boycott, figures just released by the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism show that tourism dollars are up.

Mr. Mfume scoffed at the numbers, however. "Let's see what they say in January 2001," he said.

The group's next move is to ask the movie industry to stop making films in South Carolina, he said.

Pro-flag groups, including the secessionist League of the South and Sons of Confederate Veterans, promised to target lawmakers who voted to bring down the flag. Every legislator's seat in both houses is up for grabs this year.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.