The Confederate flag flying on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds is set to come down after the House voted 94-20 to remove it. The bill, passed early Thursday morning, now heads to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk, and she is expected to sign it.
After more than 13 hours of debate — which became increasingly contentious as the night wore on — House Republicans and Democrats agreed not to amend the legislation with a proposal that threatened to make final passage more difficult.
Just before 1 a.m. lawmakers approved the legislation 93-27 in a critical second reading vote. Minutes later, the bill easily cleared the two-thirds threshold needed for it officially pass the chamber, a hurdle the Senate cleared earlier this week.
“Today, as the Senate did before them, the House of Representatives has served the State of South Carolina and her people with great dignity,” Haley said in a statement following Thursday’s early morning vote. “I’m grateful for their service and their compassion. It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state.”
The push to remove the Confederate flag began anew following last month’s shooting of nine worshipers — including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator — at a historically black church in downtown Charleston. A day after the shooting, the U.S. flag atop the state’s capitol was lowered to half-staff while the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds remained flying high.
Photos then emerged of the now-indicted shooter, an avowed white supremacist, posing with the emblem. “The alleged killer of the Charleston nine used that flag as a symbol of hatred and bigotry and racism,” Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie said on Monday.
Advocates for the flag’s removal say it represents a racist legacy and a dark chapter in the nation’s history while defenders insist it symbolizes Southern heritage and honors fallen soldiers.
The Senate approved a similar measure 36-3 on Tuesday. The final bill will head to Haley’s desk this week; she’s expected to sign it and the flag can come down 24 hours after her action.
The final bipartisan compromise will remove the flag and place it in the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
The House was stymied on a single amendment proposed by Republican Rep. Rick Quinn to include language within the bill about the flag’s placement in the museum. But the change, which would have amended the Senate bill, could have resulted in the legislative process dragging on for days or even weeks.
After over three hours of debate marked by emotional pleas, some evoking the history of slavery, Quinn withdrew his proposal. Instead, lawmakers approved a separate bill that included the details of Quinn’s amendment.
Efforts to remove the flag faced more hurdles in the 124-member House than in the Senate. By Wednesday night, dozens of amendments had been introduced and tabled; Republican Rep. Michael Pitts led the charge to derail the flag removal proposal and spoke at length on each of his amendments.
From the House floor, Pitts defended the flag and described the Civil War this way: “Some call it the war between the states, some call it the Civil War. Growing up, in my family, it was called the war of Northern aggression; it was where the Yankees attacked the South, and that’s what was ingrained on in me growing up.”
As the bill neared the critical vote, a surprise amendment stalled the legislative work: a proposal from Pitts to replace the Confederate flag at the memorial with the state’s flag. The amendment failed after nearly an hour delay.
Haley met with Republican members twice during closed-door sessions, where she made emotional pleas for lawmakers to approve the Senate bill, the Post and Courier reported.
Still, Republican lawmakers proposed several amendments that would replace the Confederate flag with the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment flag, which is similar to the state’s Palmetto banner, but honors South Carolina’s Confederate fighters.
But in an emotional floor speech while the House remained logjammed on one such amendment, Rep. Jenny Horne, who represents Charleston, admonished her colleagues for pushing changes that would essentially kill the bill.
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday,” Horne, raising her voice through tears. “For the widow of Sen. Pinckney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury.”
“I have heard enough about heritage,” she added.
Before lawmakers took up the contentious issue Wednesday morning, they stood in a moment of silence for the nine fallen parishioners from Emanuel AME Church. Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard, flanked by colleagues, read each of the victims’ names as he paid tribute to them from the House floor.
“The right thing to do is what we call the healing thing: the gentle laying down of the past, and a hopeful road to the future,” Gilliard said.
South Carolina’s debate has also prompted a national conversation about the Confederate flag and its legacy. An activist climbed the flag pole on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds last month and removed it; she was arrested and the flag was promptly replaced.
Both Democrats and Republicans spoke out on the issue, including Haley, who last month called for the flag to come down in the Palmetto State. “This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” Haley said as she was flanked by the state’s two U.S. senators and numerous other elected officials.
The last time lawmakers took up the contentious issue was in 2000, when they approved a compromise that removed the flag from the Capitol Dome and placed it on the statehouse grounds next to the Confederate Soldier Monument. They also ensured that the flag could only be removed by the legislature.
Still, supporters of the flag’s removal prevailed Wednesday, a development that seemed politically impossible more than a decade ago.
“There comes a time in life when you gotta say, you have to do what’s right,” said Democratic Rep. Grady Brown, who noted his great-great grandfather joined the Confederate army at the age of 16. “I’m doing what I’m going to do, to vote to take the flag down, because I think it is in God’s eyes, the right thing to do.”