CHARLESTON, South Carolina -- To the delight of many black residents in Charleston, South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state's capitol grounds.
In the wake of Wednesday's racist massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, many around the country argued that continuing to fly the divisive symbol at an official government building was inappropriate, and a bitter reminder of the racial hostility that motivated the shooter to kill nine people. Public pressure soon mounted, with a social media campaign to #TakeItDown, and people from President Barack Obama to Mitt Romney calling for the flag’s removal.
“It’s about time,” 29-year-old Charleston resident Lasheya Williams said after Haley's announcement.
Williams' cousin, Ethel Lee Lance, was killed Wednesday in the shooting at Emanuel, and Williams explained that seeing the flag in days since has added insult to injury.
“It’s causing too much pain,” she said. “I know there’s going to be backlash, but it has to come down.”
The Confederate flag has been a fixture at the capitol building in Columbia since long before Williams was born -- but perhaps surprisingly, it’s not a holdover from the Civil War. In fact, the flag was erected on April 11, 1961, to commemorate the Civil War centennial. In 1962, the state legislature approved a bill to keep the flag up for a full year, but never included a date for its removal. As a result, it has had a home at the South Carolina statehouse ever since.
It isn't on a pulley system like other flags there, but fixed atop a pole, a position legally protected under the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act. This is why on Thursday, when the U.S. flag at the capitol was lowered to half-staff in honor of those killed in the Emanuel A.M.E church massacre, the rebel flag was not.
Jennice Barr, 10, leaves a message on a board set up in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after a mass shooting at the church killed nine people. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Barbara Sadick, 61, said she’s “elated” that Haley finally called for the flag's removal. Born and raised in Charleston, Sadick remembers the oppressive climate in which the flag was originally erected.
“I remember the water fountains being labeled ‘white’ and ‘colored,’” she said. “When I was in school, we got secondhand books that had been used already. It was a hard time.”
Sadick added that throughout her life, the Confederate flag has been a symbol of deep pain, a reminder of the hardships experienced by her ancestors during slavery.
“It’s not a good feeling to see it. There was nothing that good that came out of it,” she said. “It should have been down a long time ago, but it’s never too late.”
Actually removing the flag will take more than Haley’s call to action, however. Under law, the governor cannot order it taken down or altered in any way. To do so will take a vote from two-thirds of the state legislature.
Both Williams and Sadick suspected that when it comes to what the Republican-controlled legislature might decide to do next, politics will win the day and the flag will ultimately be removed.
“2016 is an election year,” Sadick noted.
For her part, Williams thinks a vote to remove the flag will be another matter of political expediency for some legislators.
“I just think they don’t want to hear about it anymore,” she said. “They don’t want to hear people complaining about it and they want to do something quick to make it appear as though they’re working to resolve Charleston’s issues with racism.”
Still, Williams said she welcomed Haley's call to take the flag down as a sign of progress.
“South Carolina won’t get better overnight; people are set in their ways,” she added. “It’s sad that it took a tragedy like what happened last week for her to call for it to come down. Regardless, this is a baby step.”