Columbia, S.C. — More than a thousand people braved 100-degree heat Saturday to protest the flying of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds here, just days after the deaths of nine people in a Charleston church.
The rally, organized via Facebook in about 48 hours, drew speaker after speaker who challenged state lawmakers — who were meeting inside the copper-topped Capitol to avert a budget crisis — to move the rebel banner from in front of the Statehouse to a museum.
Emile DeFelice, a local businessman and one of the rally organizers, told the swelling crowd that lawmakers who claim to support the flag “don’t fly this flag at their businesses. But they fly it in front of yours.”
The rally was a direct result of the ravings of Dylann Roof, 21, the man accused of murdering nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday night. Photographs of Roof sporting white supremacist insignia and driving a car with a license plate featuring the flag, have raced across social media and television reports.
DeFelice and others, including local activist Tom Hall, addressed concerns from some that the rally was happening too soon after the killings. The dead haven’t even been buried yet, is a common refrain.
But, Hall said, there’s no time to waste.
“What do you do if you find you have cancer?” Hall said. “You cut it out. You don’t wait.”
Moving the flag is no simple matter. The compromise lawmakers struck in 2000 to move flag off the Capitol dome included a provision that the flag could move again only if two-thirds of both the House and Senate agree. In a legislature where the Republican controlled House is often at war with the Republican controlled Senate, and both are at odds with the Republican governor — a two-thirds vote on anything is difficult. Getting two-thirds of both chambers to agree to move the flag is doubly doubtful.
Still, DeFelice rallied the crowd to contact lawmakers to not let the momentum against the flag wane. In fact, he urged them to call on Gov. Nikki Haley to order a special session of the Legislature to do it now. While it seems unlikely the Republican governor would do such a thing, former Democratic state Rep. Boyd Brown, said January will be here soon.
“If we’re ever going to do something about that flag, it has to be now,” Brown said. “It has to be done in the next 365 days.”
Durant Ashmore, 63, of Fountain Inn, a little town in the South Carolina Upstate, was at the Statehouse early. Only, his target of protest was not the Confederate flag, but the nearby statute honoring former U.S. Sen. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a notorious racist.
Ashmore said he doesn’t think people realize the Tillman statue is there.
“He is worse than that flag right there,” Ashmore said. “If nothing else, confederates had honor. This guy was just evil.”
Julius Thomas, 35, of Columbia, was at the rally with his wife and two young daughters. He said he wants his daughters to know what African-Americans suffered through.
“They don’t recognize color as a bad thing,” Thomas, a Morehouse grad, said. “We’re at a point in 2015 where color shouldn’t make a difference. Whether or not you get ahead or stay behind. I want them to know what the fight is about.”
Thomas realizes, however, what it would take to move the flag and how state leaders have ignored past calls to do so.
“I hope they hear the people this time,” Thomas said. “We live in a different world. It’s OK to want to honor your ancestors. But that belongs in a museum. When it’s flying in our faces – that’s life.”
The crowd, which was overwhelmingly white, held signs and sang songs and urged motorists passing by to honk in support. Nary a flag supporter was seen, except for three young white men who drove by and gave a middle finger to protesters.
The black SUV had North Carolina plates.