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Secessionists to fly Confederate flag at SC State House Sunday

The Sons of Confederate Veterans Respond

SC Confederate veterans group promised to fight efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the S.C. State House grounds in this video from June 25, 2015.
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SC Confederate veterans group promised to fight efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the S.C. State House grounds in this video from June 25, 2015.

One year after thousands watched as the Confederate flag was removed from a flagpole on the State House grounds, the divisive banner will rise again at the South Carolina Capitol.

At least temporarily.

The rebel banner will be raised Sunday during their ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the flag coming down by the South Carolina Secessionist Party.

The Secessionists, which support South Carolina leaving the Union again, plan to raise the flag on a 30-foot aluminum pole with a plastic base in the same spot it flew before near the Confederate Soldier Monument on the State House’s front lawn. The ceremony starts at 11 a.m. The flag will be removed at the end of the rally.

A Confederate memorial honor guard will take part in the first of what supporters say they plan to make an annual flag raising.

James Bessenger, the chairman of the Secessionist Party’s board, expects the event to draw a crowd of hundreds, based on interest on the party’s Facebook page.

The group has not changed its plans to assemble in light of the latest mass shooting, when police officers were shot and killed in Dallas late Thursday during a protest.

Bessenger said he was contacted by S.C. capitol police Friday to ask if the rally would be postponed in light of the police shootings in Dallas during a protest about police violence against African-Americans. He said Public Safety did not formally ask the group to change its plans.

“We had a special board meeting (Friday), and the board decided to continue with the rally,” Bessenger said.

Bessenger said the rally also would honor the slain law enforcement officers in Dallas with black ribbons and raise a law enforcement emblem alongside the battle flag.

Because of the Dallas shooting, members of the Upstate Black Lives Matter chapter will not be attending the rally Sunday.

On a recent conference call, the Upstate chapter and others were “all in agreement that we didn’t really want to focus our attention on the flag at this time,” said Greenville’s Derrick Quarles, president of the activist group’s Upstate chapter.

Quarles said “it’s a very sensitive time around the nation,” and the group did not want the rally to result in violence.

Bessenger said the push to remove the flag was the result of “political correctness,” something flag supporters and others are rejecting as evidenced in the presidential campaign. “People are sick of hearing that people’s feelings are hurt,” he said.

“Our history is being erased,” he said, comparing the push to remove the Confederate battle flag to the Islamic State’s looting of Middle Eastern museums and destruction of historical artifacts. “It’s like cultural Marxism.”

But Quarles had a different interpretation.

Bringing the flag down was “the correct thing to do because of the history and the legacy attached to the flag, which, in my opinion, is a heritage of racism and hate toward blacks and minorities,” he said.

State Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, said there was no chance of the flag returning to the State House grounds.

“We’ve fought that battle, and we’ve agreed to move on,” Matthews said. “We want to put the focus on health care, on education, and it does no good to have this back out there. ... We’ve decided to move on into the 21st century.”

Security has been a concern at the State House since the Confederate flag debate flared up last year after the racially motivated shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine black parishioners were killed by a white gunman during Bible study and images surfaced of the gunman draped in the flag.

Focus quickly shifted to the flag at the State House. A week after the shooting, a protester climbed the pole that flew the flag and pulled the flag down.

Gov. Nikki Haley soon called for the flag to come down, after receiving a torrent of emails on the subject, and the state Legislature voted by a two-thirds majority to remove it.

After the flag came down last year, a pro-flag rally organized by a Ku Klux Klan group attracted angry counter-protesters – including members of the New Black Panther Party. The clash resulted in scuffles, five arrests on charges of breach of peace, disorderly conduct and assault. Other people received emergency attention.

Without discussing details, a S.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman said there would be a similar number of law enforcement agencies involved Sunday as there were at last year’s KKK rally. Eight state or local agencies contributed officers to that event, from Public Safety and the State Law Enforcement Division to the Richland and Lexington sheriff’s offices, the city of Columbia and the University of South Carolina campus police.

Their plans include preparations for counter-protesters, said S.C. Highway Patrol Lt. R. Kelley Hughes. “We don’t anticipate issues, but we will be prepared and will take appropriate enforcement action, if necessary.”

The Secessionists and Confederate memorial honor guard were the only groups to alert state officials they would be gathering Sunday.

But Bessenger said he expects to have company.

“I expect there will be some kind of riff-raff.”

A SC Confederate veterans group held a rally Thursday, June 25, 2015, and pledged to fight efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from SC State House grounds.

Reporter Jamie Self contributed. Bristow Marchant: 803-771-8405, @BristowatHome, @BuzzAtTheState