Myrtle Beach vigil speakers call for removal of Confederate flag, promote change in Horry race relations

Faith leaders say a change is coming, but only if people’s hearts change first.

More than 300 packed into Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church Tuesday night to remember the victims of the Charleston shootings and ignite a change along the Grand Strand.

The service lasted about two hours and hosted religious, government and community leaders from all around the area. Fourteen spoke in remembrance of the nine people killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week, and some spoke about changing race relations in South Carolina.

Bennie Swans, chair of the African American Heritage Foundation and community activist, said the first step to prevent future “senseless tragedies is to talk about our issues” with race.

“It’s something we must talk about, it’s something we must do something about,” Swans said. “Together we have the power to ensure what happened does not happen again.”

Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the first step to transformation is unlearning racism and bigotry. He told the crowd of almost 300 that change “won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but we can start.”

“If we’ve learned [hatred], we can unlearn that,” Dean said. “If we teach that, we can unteach it.”

Dean and several other speakers voiced their support to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds.

Debate over the flag has been renewed after a white man killed nine men and women attending Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Among those killed in the mass shooting was the church’s pastor, state senator the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

Dylann Storm Roof – who said he was at the church to kill black people, according to witness reports – has been seen in pictures holding a Confederate flag and burning an American Flag.

The S.C. House voted 103-10 Tuesday to allow a summer debate over the flag’s removal from State House grounds. The Senate adopted the same resolution Tuesday.

Proponents of the flag argue it’s an important part of S.C. history and heritage, and some revere it as a symbol of sacrifice and honor. Others see the flag as a symbol of hate and division.

The Rev. Woodrow Jones, with St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, said removing the flag was an obvious decision, and criticized the need for any debate based on the changes in police presence, marketing and procedures around the 2014 Myrtle Beach Memorial Day Bikefest changed with a comment from S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. Three people died and seven were injured in shootings near a Myrtle Beach hotel during the 2014 Bikefest.

“Our governor stood up and said ‘Shut it down,’ and we didn’t need any debate, no meetings,” Jones said. “But it takes an act of Congress to remove a flag from the State House that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

The Confederate flag currently flies near a Confederate soldier monument on the State House grounds after being moved from the Capital dome 15 years ago. The flag was originally placed on the State House dome in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.

Van Washington, member of Mt. Olive, said removing the flag won’t change anything.

“It’s in their hearts, and until their hearts change it’s not going to matter,” Washington said.

“They can take down as many flags as they want; until hearts are changed, it won’t make a difference.”

The real change must come from community, state and national unity in the face of tragedy, Washington said. Coming to terms with any underlying racism – both in older and younger generations – and uniting in love is what will eventually bring about change, she said.

“It’s not about man or women, black or white, young or old,” Washington said. “It’s about all of us preventing that hate from getting into my children’s generation, and their children’s generation.”

The solution to massacres similar to Charleston wasn’t clear to Donna Guy, but she said removing the Confederate flag would be a step in the right direction. The permanent solution must come from working together to prevent more tragedies, she said.

“We’re still fighting the Civil War in South Carolina,” Guy said. “It needs to be over.”

She hoped the Charleston shooting would be a catalyst for communal unity rather than a cause for segmentation.

“May these nine shots be shots of unity, not division,” she said.

Contact CLAIRE BYUN at 626-0381 and follow her on Twitter @Claire_TSN.

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