COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate voted Monday to pull the Confederate flag off the Capitol grounds, clearing the way for a historic measure that could remove the banner more than five decades after it was first flown above the Statehouse to protest integration.
A second vote will be needed Tuesday to send the proposal to the House, where it faces a less certain future. But Monday’s 37-3 vote was well over the two-thirds majority needed to advance the bill.
If the House passes the same measure, the flag and flagpole could be removed as soon as Gov. Nikki Haley signs the papers. The flag would be lowered for the last time and shipped off to the state’s Confederate Relic Room, near where the last Confederate flag to fly over the Statehouse dome is stored.
The vote came at the end of a day of debate in which several white senators said they had come to understand why their black colleagues felt the flag no longer represented the valor of Southern soldiers but the racism that led the South to separate from the United States more than 150 years ago.
As the senators spoke, the desk of their slain colleague, Clementa Pinckney, was still draped in black cloth. Pinckney and eight other black people were fatally shot June 17 during Bible study at a historic African-American church in Charleston. Authorities have charged a gunman who posed for pictures with the rebel banner. Police say he was driven by racial hatred.
Several senators said the grace shown by the families of the victims willing to forgive the gunman also changed their minds.
“We now have the opportunity, the obligation, to put the exclamation point on an extraordinary narrative of good and evil, of love and mercy that will take its place in the history books,” said Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican.
After the vote, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat whose suggestion that the flag be taken down while running for governor last year was called a “stunt” by Haley, was given a high-five from a fellow legislator.
“I thought it would happen, but never this fast,” Sheheen said.
Republican Sen. Larry Martin, who for decades fought off attempts to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds, said the church shooting drew him to the same conclusion that his black colleague arrived at long ago – that the rebel flag “has more to do with what was going on in the 1960s as opposed to the 1860s.”
Martin, who is white, had family who came to South Carolina’s then-rugged northern backcountry from Scotland in the early 1800s. That was about the time the enslaved relatives of Sen. Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat, involuntary ended up near Columbia.
Jackson helped write the compromise that took the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome in 2000 and put it in its current location on a pole on the Capitol’s front lawn.
On Monday, he said his great-grandfather’s brother fled a plantation and joined the Union army when Gen. William Sherman came storming through Columbia.
Jackson said he regretted not going further to get rid of the flag completely 15 years ago. But he welcomed the chance now to honor his great-grandfather, Ishmael Jackson, who escaped to freedom.
“You said we lost the war. No we didn’t. Not Ishmael Jackson and the 57 percent of people who looked like him. As far as they are concerned, they won the war,” Jackson said.
The Senate rejected three amendments. One would have put a different Confederate flag on the pole. A second would only fly the flag on Confederate Memorial Day, and the third would leave the flag’s fate up to a popular vote.
State Sen. Lee Bright, who suggested the popular vote, said the Confederate flag has been misused by people like Dylann Roof, who is charged with murder in the church shootings and who posed in pictures with the rebel banner.
“I’m more against taking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high,” said Bright, a Republican.
The flag still has at least a few days to fly, even with Haley, business leaders and civil rights proponents wanting it down as soon as possible. There are indications the proposal could have a tougher road in the House. Some powerful Republicans have not said how they will vote, including Speaker Jay Lucas.
Some Republicans want to keep the flagpole and put a different flag on it. Suggestions have included the U.S. flag, the South Carolina flag and a flag that may have been flown by Confederate troops but does not have the same connections as the red banner with the blue cross and white stars.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford vowed that no Democrat would vote for a bill that leaves the flagpole up.
The bill is expected to be sent directly to the House floor Wednesday with several amendments offered, said Republican Rep. Greg Delleney, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would normally receive the bill before it got to the floor.
If any amendments pass, a conference committee would likely be needed to hash out differences.