S. Carolina Flap Over Rebel Flag


Probably no issue has divided South Carolina more than the Confederate flag that has waved atop the statehouse for three decades.

Although calls to remove the rebel Stars and Bars have increased over the past several years, they've met with strong resistance. Many white residents say the flag defines their heritage; others, mainly blacks, contend it represents the dark days of segregation and racial hatred.

But now the plea to lower it is coming from a new source in an unusual way: Tomorrow night Republican Gov. David Beasley will go live on television to explain to South Carolinans why the flag should no longer fly there.

Not only is it rare for a South Carolina governor to use TV as a forum on such issues, but until recently Mr. Beasley supported the flag flying over the statehouse. What prompted him to rethink his position are several recent racial incidents and the findings of a year-old race relations commission, which identified the flag as an issue that continues to divide the state.

South Carolina's reexamination of this emotion-charged symbol follows the lead of other Southern states in recent years. The question of how to handle cherished icons and racial policies has come to the forefront as this fast-growing region struggles with how to portray itself to the world.

Two years ago, Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse. During last summer's Olympics, Atlanta officials removed the Georgia flag, which carries the Stars and Bars, from city and county buildings out of concern for the image it represents.

In South Carolina, Beasley is calling for a compromise that does not remove the flag entirely but places it on the statehouse grounds near the Confederate soldier's monument, where it can be honored for its heritage. In 1994, the state Legislature considered that possibility. The measure was approved by the Senate but failed in the House.

The governor's television appeal is designed to enlist support for the compromise, in expectation that state lawmakers will revisit the issue next year.

"Right now the flag is flying in a vacuum," says Robyn Zimmerman, the governor's spokeswoman. "It's being defined by extremists on both sides. In his speech, I think he'll say, 'This is something I've prayed about, something I've been troubled over, I have grave concerns of all the issues surrounding it.' He's saying, 'Let's talk, it's time we unite on this.' "

Beasley's scheduled 15-minute appeal comes after several news stories that have put the spotlight on South Carolina. Several weeks ago two whites, who had attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, later opened fire on a local black nightclub near Columbia, police say. Over the past year, there have been black church burnings and, in the town of Laurens, S.C., a KKK museum and shop has opened.

While some say the racial climate here is no different than elsewhere in the United States, they emphasize the importance of settling the flag debate so the state can focus on issues such as education and economic development.

"This state has had too much success in capital investment to not create a more conducive climate, which will be an even better selling point to bring in more business," says Clarence Davis, an attorney and a member of the racial relations commission. "The governor wants to face the job-creation and education issue head on, and this race problem is getting in the way of it."

South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag over its statehouse in the early 1960s, in defiance of federal civil rights laws.

"It was not a heritage issue then but an act of defiance," says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.

Today, much of the resistance to removing the flag is "not because white people are racist," Mr. Woodard says. "The main reason is they don't like government telling them what and where they can fly it. For most people it's more a way of showing Southern roots and character."

Many South Carolinians say finding a solution to the flag issue won't necessarily stop racism. "But it can help in bringing the races together and find some common ground," Mr. Davis says.

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