After its removal from the State House grounds a year ago, the Confederate flag was back – if just for the day.
Flag supporters staged a rally on the grounds Sunday – the one-year anniversary of the flag’s removal from a Confederate soldiers memorial – where an honor guard of Confederate re-enactors raised the flag once again on a temporary pole in the same spot.
But it would fly only until the event permit expired, at 5 p.m. Sunday.
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The rally drew about 150 people from across South Carolina and beyond, according to an estimate from the S.C. Department of Public Safety, as well as a smaller number of anti-flag protesters. The event was organized by the S.C. Secessionist Party, which plans to make the raising an annual event.
Party chairman James Bessenger said the flag is needed on the monument to honor the thousands of South Carolinians who lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy. “We memorialize those who died at Pearl Harbor and on 9 / 11,” Bessenger said. “We don’t defame soldiers today because they fight for oil and global bankers, and we shouldn’t defame (the Confederates).”
After a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting in Dallas, organizers quickly raised the banner on a 30-foot temporary pole while supporters – many carrying Confederate flags of their own – cheered and cried out “Amen” and “Leave it up.” The ceremony was followed by the playing of “Dixie,” what Bessenger called “our national anthem.”
Annie Caddell traveled from her home in Summerville for the rally. She said she’s had the windows of her home shot out because she flies a Confederate flag on her porch, and she wants to see the flag returned to its former place of prominence. Flag supporters need to make their voices heard with state leaders, she said.
Taking this flag down is an attack on white people.
Arlene Barnum, a black Confederate descendent
“We cannot sit on our hands. We have to call, write letters, any kind of communication we can have with them,” Caddell said, shading herself with a Confederate flag umbrella. “I wish we had a thousand more people here, because this flag belongs to everybody.”
But others don’t share Caddell’s passion. About a dozen protesters stood on the other side of a barricade set up by law enforcement on the Gervais Street sidewalk, carrying a red-black-and-green “black liberation” flag and speaking through a bullhorn, trying to drown out pro-flag speakers by calling the flag a symbol of hate and slavery.
“Even your governor and your senators say it’s racist,” the protesters shouted, then chanted the names “Walter Scott” and “Charleston Nine” – referring to a black North Charleston man shot by a white police officer, and the nine victims of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church killings, which precipitated the flag’s removal last year.
150 flag supportes and a dozen protesters rallied at the State House, separated by police barricades. There were no arrests.
Officers from several law enforcement agencies patrolled the State House grounds during Sunday’s rally, keeping flag supporters separated from opponents. Despite some verbal exchanges between the two sides, flag supporters made a point of turning their backs on the protesters. A Public Safety spokesman said no arrests were made during the rally or its aftermath.
Arlene Barnum brought some diversity to the pro-flag side of the rally. A black woman from Oklahoma, Barnum said she can trace her Confederate ancestry to her great-great-great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran from Alabama, and his slave mistress, who family lore says died when the family house was burned by Union forces.
“If we don’t keep fighting, they are going to take the monument down next,” Barnum said. “I think taking this flag down is an attack on white people, but white people are afraid to say it because they will be called ‘racist’... I feel sorry for white people, honestly.”
It’s about heritage and hate.
Sean McGuinness, anti-Confederate flag protester
Barnum said she’s never seen a contradiction between her skin color and her support for the Confederate flag. Referring to the protesters on the other side of the barricade, she said, “I feel more comfortable in here than I would out there.”
But Sean McGuinness, a white man and another Confederate descendent, took the opposite view. He stood nearby with a placard with a quote from Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens’ “cornerstone” speech – declaring the Confederacy to be based on “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man” – and the hashtag “#ItWasAboutSlavery.”
“If the government comes for it on their front lawns or their T-shirts, I’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them,” McGuinness said. “But I don’t want it on (the state’s) front lawn ... It’s about heritage and hate.”
If the Secessionist Party has its way, the flag will return to the State House grounds every year. The party already has submitted an application to hold the rally again next July 10, Bessenger said. He credited the defeat of several prominent state legislators in this year’s primaries, like longtime Sen. Larry Martin and Rep. Jenny Horne, who was running for Congress, in part to their votes to take down the Confederate flag –showing support for the battle flag is still strong, he added.
“When we have our events on the Battery (in Charleston), people come up to me real quiet and say ‘thank you for what you’re doing,’ but they won’t be outwardly proud,” Bessenger said. “We have to go beyond ‘heritage not hate,’ and tell people why their heritage is important.”