I got an email from a Republican House member who had just voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, but only after supporting amendments that could have derailed that plan.
“I stood with the Governor Haley Monday before last calling for the flag to come down,” he explained. “Yesterday, I voted for some of the compromises because I felt many in my district would want ‘a nod' to heritage.”
A Republican senator who voted for an amendment to keep flying the flag on Confederate Memorial Day was more direct: He didn’t want to do it, he told me, but his constituents would “never forgive me if I voted against that.”
There’s a lot to celebrate about the Legislature’s decision to remove the flag from the State House grounds. It occurred because so many legislators and so very many of their constituents recognized that it was wrong to fly a banner at the seat of our government that causes so much pain to so many South Carolinians.
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But despite final votes that were overwhelming, 60 members of the House – just two short of a majority – first voted to replace the flag with another banner, rather than removing it.
At one point, the House couldn’t even muster enough votes to kill an amendment that would have accomplished absolutely nothing but to delay the flag’s removal.
What those 60 House members kept telling the other 63 was that if they were going to take something away from flag supporters, they had to be able to get something in return.
Voting in fear
Now, I’m all about compromise; government cannot work without it. But sometimes compromise has to be viewed in the totality – not in a single bill. And the totality of the whole “honor our ancestors” plea is that our State House grounds are practically sinking under the weight of all the official honors for things Confederate.
The argument that tied up the House for the better part of the day was that we would be abandoning the memory of the Confederate soldiers if they were left with nothing. Well, except the most prominent monument on the State House grounds. And the same Confederate flag presence that we had for the first 100 years after the war: none.
The absurdity of this argument was crystallized in an amendment to build a monument depicting the flag, to stand where the flag stood for these past 15 years. That is, to replace the flag that flew over the Confederate Soldier Monument with … a monument … whose purpose would be to accompany … another monument.
I think most legislators who voted to replace rather than retire the flag realized that the argument was crazy, and that’s why most of them didn’t get up and talk about cultural genocide or spitting in the graves of Confederate ancestors. But they were worried – as those two legislators admitted to me – that their constituents did not recognize that.
Just 11 percent of voters voted in the 2014 GOP primary. That means 6 percent can take out an incumbent.
If you look at those 60 representatives who voted to replace the Confederate flag with the state flag, you'll see the 27 who ultimately voted against the bill; you'll also see a lot of other Republicans who won their seats not in the general election – where they typically face at most token Democratic opposition – but in the Republican primary. They represent overwhelmingly Republican districts – easily identifiable in this state as districts with practically no black voters.
They’re worried because there’s already an organized campaign, likely to be funded by out-of-state dollars that state law will not require to be disclosed, to unseat legislators who voted to remove the flag. They’re worried because primary elections draw only the most committed voters, and generally the most extreme voters. They’re worried because the people most committed to vote in any election are the ones who feel like they’ve been wronged by the incumbent.
They’re worried because the flag hadn’t even been lowered yet when we started hearing demands that the African-American History Monument be razed in a tit-for-tat retaliation.
The other monument
Now, I never liked the idea of an African-American monument, because it invites just the sort of cynical criticism that it is getting right now. But we need to understand why that monument was created. It’s true that it was envisioned during early conversations about removing the Confederate flag from atop the State House. But it was authorized years before the flag was moved. It was authorized separately because it wasn’t about the flag; it was about all those other monuments.
It grew out of a recognition that while our state was busy erecting monuments to all sorts of white people we ignored centuries of contributions by black people. We ignored the fact that the vast wealth that our state accumulated before the Civil War was created by the labor of enslaved black people, who constituted a majority of our population.
The all-inclusive monument was, frankly, an easy out for the white leaders who recognized all that and wanted to make amends.
So if there were a trade-off, it would be to remove that African-American monument in return for removing the statue of South Carolina’s most notorious white supremacist, Ben Tillman, and the Confederate Soldier Monument and the monument to the Women of the Confederacy and the sculpture of Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton and the portraits of more than a dozen Confederate generals and leaders that hang inside the state Senate and House chambers.
But we don’t need a trade-off.
What we need is to recognize the ugly mindset that causes people to demand that we remove our one official acknowledgment that black people have played a positive role in our state’s history.
And when that mindset spawns flag-draped primary opponents for the Republican legislators who voted to remove the Johnny-come-lately flag that was at best redundant and at worst – well, let’s just leave it at its best – we need to rally to their support. Whatever our party, where ever we live.
One of the worst things that could happen to our state is for those legislators to be replaced by people who are angry because they voted to remove from the sea of Confederate monuments that one fluttering speck of cloth that caused so much pain to so very many South Carolinians.
Contact Cindi Ross Scoppe, associate editorial page editor for The (Columbia) State, at firstname.lastname@example.org.