In S.C., a clash over race, heritage

NAACP seeks removal of Confederate flag through sanctions

January 16, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A. Mason Gibbes knows well the potency of the Confederacy for South Carolinians. His granddaddy fired the signal shot in 1861 that began the bombardment of Fort Sumter and plunged the nation into civil war. But this 85-year-old son of the South also believes that the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome is long overdue.

Flying over the Capitol since the 1961 centennial of the War Between the States, the battle flag is at the center of a nasty public debate here over symbols of sovereignty, racial intolerance, cultural heritage and legislative imperative.

The debate intensified with a call by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for vacationers, conventions, corporations, associations and others to take their business elsewhere until the flag comes down.

Tomorrow, NAACP leaders, religious groups, college students, community activists and others will rally at the Statehouse for the removal of the Confederate battle flag. Mason Gibbes, the grandson of Maj. Wade Hampton Gibbes Sr., will be there in spirit, if not in person.

"I don't think the Confederate flag has any business over the Statehouse now," said Gibbes, a retired businessman who, in a Christmas card five years ago, proposed to then-Gov. Carroll Campbell that the flag be removed. "The Statehouse was there without the flag for so many years. It's just been a ridiculous thing to have kept it up there."

But others view the challenge to the flag as an assault on Southern heritage.

"I've always said it's not about the location of the flag; it's the flag itself," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, a student of what is known in Southern parlance as the War of Northern Aggression.

The flag, a star-studded blue X on a red background, led columns of Confederate soldiers across the battlefields of the South. Their descendants displayed it at parades and ceremonies. Daughters of the Confederacy gave the flag as gifts to their husbands. The Ku Klux Klan claimed the banner for its own menacing uses during the civil rights movement.

African-Americans, who constitute a third of South Carolina's 3.8 million residents, say the flag has no place at the seat of government in the Palmetto State. The more outspoken have called it a red rag, an odious symbol of racism. Others say simply it doesn't represent them.

Defenders of the flag contend that it is neither a symbol of slavery nor an affront to civil rights.

`A soldier's flag'

"It is a soldier's flag," said McConnell, a former Legal Aid lawyer whose legislative office is decorated with paintings of Civil War scenes. "It is not a political flag."

The issue of removing the flag from the Statehouse has been raised over the years but not resolved. It flies below the American flag and the state flag, which features a palmetto tree. It went up at a time when only white lawmakers served in the Statehouse and during the contentious civil rights fight.

The last governor who proposed relocating it lost his bid for re-election.

A group of Columbia businessmen filed a court challenge to the flag's Statehouse display in the late 1990s. But state lawmakers, recognizing the political power of the battle flag, passed legislation giving them sole authority over the flag's fate.

"Ever since the Civil War, the descendants of the white owners have controlled what the symbols are, the state songs, flags," said Edwin L. Ayers, a Southern historian at the University of Virginia. "People who have always resented that being presented as what the South is are now fighting back."

The flag issue resurfaced last summer when the national board of the Baltimore-based NAACP voted to initiate economic sanctions Jan. 1 if the Confederate banner was not removed. But the legislature, the only group that has power over the flag, wasn't to reconvene until last Tuesday. So they returned for the start of their legislative session in a fit of pique, with the NAACP sanctions under way.

House Speaker Pro Tem Terry E. Haskins called the NAACP's actions a "bogus" way to boost membership and donations.

Haskins, a Michigan native who says he has fought to keep affirmative action alive in the state, said the NAACP did little several years ago when then-Gov. David Beasley and he proposed relocating the flag.

"I am not going to move to bring that flag down as long as I am under threats," said the 44-year-old lawyer from Greenville. "That's bad public policy. The integrity of the General Assembly of South Carolina is more important than where a piece of cloth flies."

But Lonnie Randolph Jr., a Columbia leader of the NAACP, asked: "There were no sanctions for the last 38 years and there was no resolution to this issue. Do you think sanctions are the problem?"

The issue has pitted Civil War enthusiasts against civil rights activists, sons of the Confederacy against descendants of slaves. It has engaged veteran politicians and political neophytes, business leaders and barbers, university officials and stay-at-home mothers.

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