The Confederate flag will return temporarily to the S.C. State House this summer.
The S.C. Secessionist Party plans to raise the Civil War banner during a four-hour rally on July 10, the first anniversary of the flag’s controversial removal.
Secessionist Party founder James Bessenger said Thursday that he wants the flag raising next to the Confederate Soldier Monument on the State House grounds to become an annual event.
“We do it to honor those who left their homes, left their families, stood on bloody battlefields and sacrificed their lives for the sake of the people of South Carolina,” said Bessenger, who said his party has about 2,100 members. “They . . . deserve honor, our gratitude and and our states’ respect.”
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Several S.C. lawmakers said Thursday they saw no reason to stop the Secessionist Party from raising the Confederate flag banished after five decades at the State House.
“I wish they wouldn’t, but that’s the country that we live in,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican who voted to remove the flag. “They have the right of free expression.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, added, “This defies logical and common sense. But we don’t regulate crazy.”
Honoring the Civil War, a dispute over slavery and states rights, is complicated in the South, where many residents see the conflict as part of their heritage.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, a York Republican who voted to remove the flag, compared the Civil War to the Vietnam War – a pair of conflicts that were not widely popular. “There were people who answered the call to serve regardless if not everyone agreed on the reasons,” he said.
The S.C. Secessionist rally will stir up emotions that flared last year when Republican Gov. Nikki Haley first asked for the Confederate flag’s removal from the State House grounds. She called to move the flag after a pastor and eight parishioners were killed in a historic African-American Charleston church in June. An avowed Columbia-area white supremacist was charged in the shootings, which included a state senator.
With demonstrators on both sides of the debate marching outside the State House, lawmakers voted to banish the flag that had flown atop the State House dome before going next to the Confederate Soldier Monument on the north side of the grounds.
At the July rally, the Confederate flag will return on a 25-foot aluminum pole atop a plastic base, Bessenger said. The state does not allow stakes placed into the grounds, the S.C. Department of Administration said.
The only other group that asked to hold an event at the State House on July 10 is the Confederate Memorial Honor Guard, the Department of Administration said. The guard will help raise the flag during the Secessionist Party rally, Bessenger said.
Rally organizers expect 150 to 300 people to attend, according to the reservation form submitted to the Department of Administration.
Bessenger said he plans to invite members of other secessionist groups in North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma as well as Haley and all 131 members of the state Legislature who voted to remove the flag.
“Our treacherous state Legislature voted to remove it without the consent of the people in our state,” the invitation reads. “We, however, owe this opportunity to them. Without their poor judgment and lack of integrity, we would not have this cause.”
In December, Haley asked Department of Administration officials to reinstate a State House reservation for another Secessionist Party rally that was revoked because of security concerns.
Authorities were worried after supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers clashed during simultaneous rallies at the State House in July a week after the Confederate battle flag was removed from the State House grounds. Police arrested five people during the rallies.
Protesters showed up in December at the Secessionist Party’s gathering for the anniversary of South Carolina breaking away from the Union. One protester was arrested. Bessenger expects demonstrations at the party’s July rally.
“If they want to come, that’s their right,” he said. “We plan to ignore them.”
Andrew Shain: @AndyShain