A painful, historical wound reopened in South Carolina when nine African-Americans were shot dead in a Charleston church last month.
In shock and disbelief, state leaders sang “We Shall Overcome,” swaying hand-in-hand with a community in anguish.
Then mourners robbed of their dearest treasures showered the accused killer with forgiveness.
That stunning act of grace toppled a divisive symbol of heritage and hate, setting the state on a path toward healing.
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Twenty-three days of grief, remorse and hope wrought what 54 years could not – the expulsion of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s seat of power.
The events that furled the flag were set in motion by an unlikely source. S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley had dismissed calls to remove the banner during her re-election campaign last fall.
Now angered and saddened by the tragedy, the Republican called on state lawmakers to join her in demanding the flag’s removal just five days after the killings, three days after the victims’ families expressed forgiveness to the alleged shooter and one day after “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church ceased being a crime scene to hold a Sunday service.
From that point on, the state appeared committed to meet national political and business demands for the Confederate flag’s removal.
But South Carolina wanted a solution of its own.
“I want to make two things clear,” Haley said on the day she called for the flag’s removal. “First, this is South Carolina’s State House. It is South Carolina’s historic moment. And this will be South Carolina’s decision. To those outside of our state, the flag may be nothing more than a symbol of the worst of America’s past. That is not what it is to many South Carolinians.
“This State House belongs to all of us.”
A painful wound
Shock had set in the morning after nine parishioners were killed during a Bible study, when Haley joined local leaders in Charleston for a news conference. She fought tears trying to articulate what the killings meant.
“We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Haley said, weeping.
The site of the shooting – a church meant to be a safe haven – magnified the horror of the tragedy.
“Parents have to try to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe, and that is not something we ever thought we’d deal with,” said Haley, a mother of two teens.
Church members, neighbors and visitors to the Holy City brought flowers to a police barricade near Emanuel all day, some dressed in full suits and dresses in the sweltering summer heat.
Nearly 120 miles away in Columbia, a black cloth was draped over state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s desk in the State House and single white rose place on top. Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel, was reportedly sitting next to the shooter when the massacre began.
Not even a day had passed since their friend and colleague – “Clem,” they called him – had been sitting at his Senate desk.
The memorials for Pinckney, a former House page and House member, would continue in the Capitol.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who called Pinckney the “conscience of the Senate,” hoped his close friend’s death was not in vain.
Pinckney’s “sacrifice must lead to reconciliation,” he said.
In Charleston, state leaders, clergy and community members moved from news conferences to prayer vigils, navigating through the peninsula’s weekday traffic, thick with residents and tourists.
During a vigil at Morris Brown AME church just 18 hours after the shootings, Haley stood in the front row, joining hands with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston.
The state’s first Indian-American governor its first black U.S. senator were proof of progress in South Carolina, and a sign that more could come.
But in that tragic moment, their voices reached into the past for comfort and hope.
They joined hundreds packed into the old church, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
A gift of grace
Two days after the shooting, Dylann Roof stood in front of a camera that beamed his image into a courtroom where the victims’ families and authorities awaited his bond hearing.
Two armed and armored guards stood behind Roof as he answered the judge’s questions, “Yes, sir ...No, sir,” in a boyish voice.
Roof’s round eyes trailed left and right, but his face remained relaxed and unfazed as victims’ survivors addressed him directly.
Their voices – sometimes anguished, sometimes amazingly calm – had loving messages: “I forgive you” and “Hate won’t win.”
These few quiet words spoke loudly in the coming weeks when legislators found themselves pulled back into one of the state’s most divisive debates in decades. They repeatedly cited the example of grace that the family set, which was echoed at Emanuel’s first church service since the killings.
The forgiveness that the grieving families showed Roof “truly surpasses our human understanding,” state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat whose district includes the church, told House members Wednesday, before they embarked on a 14-hour debate on the flag.
“If anyone had the right to be vengeful, it was these families,” said David Beasley, a former governor who pushed to remove the flag from the State House dome unsuccessfully in the 1990s.
“But in 24 hours, they displayed the most powerful weapon in the history of the world: unconditional love.”
A debate over heritage
Calls to remove the long-divisive flag from the State House grounds started almost immediately after news broke about the church massacre, which authorities called a hate crime.
And other powerful symbols emerged linking the Confederate flag to the killings.
Pictures online of the alleged shooter posing with a handgun and the Confederate banner galvanized advocates who said the images proved that the flag’s state-sanctioned flight at the Capitol was little more than state-sanctioned racism.
The massacre also happened at the oldest AME church in the South. Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in the early 1800s, was a founder of the church, which was later burned to the ground and then outlawed, forcing blacks to move underground to worship.
Both factors played a huge role in driving the debate about the flag, Beasley said.
“The imagery, the symbolism, they all combined together to create an atmosphere that brought about significant change,” he said.
The Senate reacted to the tragedy and the loss of its colleague by voting 36-3 on Tuesday to support the flag’s removal. Three amendments were discussed and quickly defeated as Republicans who previously had supported the flag’s flight explained why they changed their minds.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he was “embarrassed” he had not realized how offensive the flag was until after the tragedy – and after he heard comments from a black senator about how it felt to see the Confederate flag next to the United States and South Carolina state flags in the Senate chamber after he first was elected in the 1990s.
Some House Republicans requested that the Confederate flag be replaced with a Civil War-era South Carolina infantry banner. The request was called offensive by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an African-American from Orangeburg.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, a Laurens Republican who led efforts to keep a flag flying, said most Southerners in the Civil War era were too poor to own slaves, and fought against an overreaching federal government. That part of their Southern heritage could be honored by another flag that has not been hijacked by hate groups, he said.
But state Rep. Joe Neal, an African-American lawmaker from Richland County, asked lawmakers to consider what the flag represents to people like him – “a heritage based on a group of people who were brought here in chains.”
Slaves were “denigrated, demagogued, lynched and killed, denied a right to vote, denied the right to even have a family,” he said, telling how his ancestors were split up, sold away and given the names of their slave owner.
Those stories of “pain and suffering” are the kind that “exist in our community,” Neal said.
At the end of the long debate, the House voted 94-20 to bring down the flag early Thursday morning.
A step toward healing
It took seven minutes on Friday to lower the battle banner from the front lawn of the State House, where thousands of onlookers watched the brief ceremony.
State leaders, normally willing to speak at ceremonial occasions, stood silently watching like the rest of the crowd.
Over the last few weeks, many state leaders came to believe the flag’s removal was a necessary step to start the healing in South Carolina.
But in one way, the state was prepared to respond quickly to the church shooting, primed by its similar response to another crisis.
When Haley announced her support for furling the flag, she noted that the Emanuel tragedy came two months after a white North Charleston police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in a crime caught on a cellphone camera.
“South Carolina did not respond with rioting and violence, like other places have. We responded by talking to each other, putting ourselves in each others’ shoes, and finding common ground in the name of moving our state forward,” she said.
Haley was referring to violence that erupted in reaction to the police-involved deaths of African-American men in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
That crisis compelled lawmakers – “Republicans and Democrats, black and white” – to pass a body camera bill to over police departments across the state.
The law to removal the Confederate flag followed.
Now Democratic leaders want more. The flag is just a symbol of the state’s racial and economic problems, they say.
President Barack Obama, who delivered Pinckney’s eulogy last month, said the slain senator’s district is “one of the most neglected in America – a place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment; a place that needed somebody like Clem.”
“It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders,” but removing it, Obama said, “would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
The push to remove the flag was boosted by a new generation of lawmakers, born after the Civil Rights movement.
Among those voices was state Sen. Paul Thurmond, a 39-year-old Charleston Republican and son of the late iconic S.C. governor and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who championed segregation in the buildup to the civil rights movement.
“I am proud to take a stand and no longer be silent. I am proud to be on the right side of history regarding the removal of this symbol of racism and bigotry from the State House,” the younger Thurmond said.
Removing the Confederate flag, Thurmond added, is not the end, but the beginning of a “difficult conversation about healing in our state.
“Justice by halves is not justice.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.