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Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Confederate battle flag’s long period of flying free in the South might be coming to an end.

After last week’s massacre of nine black churchgoers by a young white man who proudly displayed the Confederate and other flags of racist regimes, citizens, politicians, and pundits are calling for it to be resigned, taken down from state grounds, and shuttered behind glass in a museum as a relic of history.

South Carolina is not the only state that displays the flag prominently. Georgia removed the Confederate portion of its state flag in 2001, and in 2003 the flag was completely redesigned.

In Alabama, the Confederate flag was removed from the state Capitol in 1994, although parts of its state flag represent aspects of the Confederate cross.

And of course, Dixie’s stars and bars are embedded into the design of Mississippi’s state flag – the only state flag that currently maintains the Confederate emblem, and now there is a movement to change that.

In 2001, 64 percent of Mississippi voters decided in a ballot measure to keep the emblem on the flag, where it has been since 1894. But with a resurgent nationwide movement and what some see as a more progressive state, lawmakers believe that that could change. Legislative Black Caucus chairman Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones (D-Canton) told the Clarion-Ledger that it was “possible” that the next legislative session could take up the issue when it starts in January.

A MoveOn.org petition, started by Jennifer Gunter, a two-time Ole Miss graduate and now a PhD student in American history at the University of South Carolina, calls for the removal of the emblem from the Mississippi state flag. Gunter hopes to have at least 100,000 signatures before submitting it to the governor and legislature; as of this writing, she has close to 10,000. A similar MoveOn.org petition in South Carolina calling for the removal of the Confederate flag on state grounds has more than 548,000 signatures.

Philip Gunn, the Mississippi state House Speaker, is the first Republican elected official in the state to publicly call for the removal of the Confederate flag.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said in a statement, echoing remarks from Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, who announced on Monday that the time was right for removal.

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Urged on by politicians such as Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham – who has reversed his stance in the past few days – Haley, in a change of heart of her own, said that the flag is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past…that needs to be removed.”

Local officials and businesses across South Carolina and the rest of the South have agreed.

There has been pushback from leaders of some pro-Confederate flag groups, but they have said that they will not fight progress. “With the winds that started blowing last week, I figured it would just be a matter of time,” Ken Thrasher, the lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the South Carolina division, told The New York Times. “Whatever the legislature decides to do, we will accept it graciously.”

Haley was clear in her remarks that regardless of what the state legislature decides, the flag will always be allowed on private property.

Wednesday’s massacre revived a debate that has been brewing for decades. In South Carolina, the state where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, there were multiple attempts to remove the flag in the 1990s, culminating in the compromise that removed the flag from the statehouse dome but kept it flying on the grounds. But this also made any future attempt to remove the flag onerous, requiring a two-thirds majority from each chamber in the legislature, a rule that some legislators say may not be legally binding, and that a simple majority would suffice.

As Kay Steiger in Think Progress outlines, the Confederate flag – whose renewal as a symbol of oppression against blacks was revived in the aftermath of World War II, when anti-segregation policies began to be adopted – was hoisted atop the South Carolina state Capitol as a way to honor the Civil War centennial. Thirty years later, some legislators who were there said that the flag was not supposed to be a permanent fixture:

Former state Rep. George Campsen, who was one of the legislators who voted to raise the flag in 1962, said at a gathering at the Capitol in December 1999 that it was “mere oversight or omission” that the resolution to raise the flag in memory of the Civil War centennial didn’t include a date to lower it when the four-year celebration ended in 1966. A news article in the Charlotte Observer at the time noted that of the 170 white legislators who approved the measure, some 60 to 65 legislators were still alive and 48 signed a petition to remove the flag.

While lawmakers like Haley try to push legislation through, eBay, Amazon, Walmart, Sears, and Kmart have already announced they will no longer sell merchandise that bears the Confederate flag.

In South Carolina, support for the flag was until recently going strong, according to a 2014 Winthrop poll taken last November. And while the South Carolina results split among racial lines, nationally, the flag often elicited merely a neutral response, according to an analysis of recent surveys taken by Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight. The numbers bring to light an unsettling truth — that often, in order for people to change their minds and take action, a tragedy must happen first.

Photo: Eli Christman via Flickr. Infographic: Tribune News Service

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