Charleston church shooting: Why is Confederate flag at full staff?

As flags atop South Carolina's State Capitol fly at half staff in a gesture of mourning following a deadly shooting at a Charleston church, many are wondering why a nearby Confederate battle flag flies at full height.

An old battle has risen again in the South, as a Confederate battle flag flies on the grounds adjacent to the South Carolina State House, conspicuously at full height. Other flags at the State House were lowered in a gesture of mourning after an attack by an alleged white supremacist at a church Wednesday. 

Dylann Storm Roof is accused of opening fire inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine people. In response, the US flag and South Carolina’s palmetto flag flew at half staff in the capital, Columbia. The fact that the Confederate battle flag has remained flying at full height has angered some, and prompted calls for the banner, which for many carries associations with racism, to be removed altogether. In a widely disseminated photo of Mr. Roof, found on his Facebook profile, he is seen wearing a jacket emblazoned with two more former national symbols that have become associated by some with racism: the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, both of which loom large in white supremacist circles.

A petition on the MoveOn website has garnered more than 100,000 signatures described its goal: “The Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern pride but rather a symbol of rebellion and racism. On the heels of the brutal killing of nine Black people in a South Carolina church by a racist terrorist, it's time to put that symbol of rebellion and racism behind us and move toward healing and a better United States of America!”

Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, says in an interview, “Because of where it is located, this is not a free-speech, individual issue. The position of the flag is clearly government speech ... and therefore is a legitimate issue to raise. This is not a history lesson. The question to raise is, at this point in time, is this an appropriate statement for the State of South Carolina to be making?”

“I think it’s disgusting that that flag is displayed anywhere on public property," says Heidi Beirich, who directs the Intelligence Project for The Southern Poverty Law Center in an interview. “This is like saying to a large chunk of your population, ‘You are lesser beings.' You can’t divorce the flag from its symbolism which was for a white supremacist country, for slavery.”

Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) told reporters in Charleston Friday that, "we cannot have the Confederate flag [over] the state capitol ... the flag must come down."

Republican Sen. and 2016 GOP hopeful Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also said that the issue may need to be reconsidered, telling CNN, "at the end of the day, it's time for people in South Carolina to – to revisit that decision would be fine with me. But this is part of who we are. The flag represents to some people a Civil War ... to others, it's a racist symbol ... and it's been used in a racist way."

However, one major proponent of the Confederate battle flag, The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) thinks it’s time to lower the flag argument and unite against a common enemy: hate groups.

SCV spokesman Ben Jones says that while there have been protests against the flag in the past, this time he is inviting the Southern Poverty Law Center and other opponents to the table to talk about a flag that he says, “isn’t going away.”

“This has become political and divisive,” Mr. Jones says. “Look, I marched for civil rights and was thrown in jail for it. I’m totally dedicated to bringing everybody together around that table of brotherhood that Dr. King talked about ... I invite those with an open mind to come, break bread and let’s really talk about this thing.”

Jones, who is well known both as a former Georgia congressman and for his role as Cooter on the popular 1980s television show "The Dukes of Hazzard" says the flag that to him symbolizes the family histories of 70 million American who are descended from those who fought in the Confederacy has been hijacked by extremists and haters, which reflects negatively on him and his heritage organization’s supporters.

“There are nuts like this creature [Mr. Roof], this awful, dreadful human being who did this horrible thing in South Carolina and our prayers are with those families of the victims there,” Jones adds. “We are grieving with those families."

So why is the controversial banner still flying at full height? It's entirely procedural. This flag, which was flown until 2000 above the South Carolina State House, operates by its own rules. That year, a bill passed which moved the flag to grounds adjacent to the State House, and stipulated that the flag must be flown at 30 feet, according to Slate. So, unlike the state flag or the national flag, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley can't order the flag be lowered in a gesture of mourning. That decision falls to the state's General Assembly, which currently isn't in session.

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