WASHINGTON, July 9, 2015 (AFP) – South Carolina lawmakers agreed Thursday to banish the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol, seeking reconciliation and healing after last monthâ€™s shooting massacre at a black church.
In a pre-dawn vote capping a tense legislative debate, the stateâ€™s House of Representatives agreed overwhelmingly to remove the polarizing battle symbol, which for decades has held a place of prominence in front of the legislature building.
The measure was passed by a resounding 94 in favor and 20 against — far above the two-thirds majority needed for final approval. The same bill cleared the state Senate on Monday by a vote of 37 to three.
It now goes to the desk of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who had made an ardent plea to lawmakers to approve the measure following the June 17 massacre of nine African Americans at an evening prayer service.
Dylann Roof, 21, a suspected white supremacist charged with the killings in Charleston, has been seen in online photographs flaunting the Confederate flag, which for many critics symbolizes the slavery era of the US South before the Civil War.
Haley, in a posting on her Facebook page, praised lawmakers for voting to remove the divisive banner from the grounds of the state capital building — a move which just a few short weeks ago would have been unthinkable.
“It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state,” she wrote.
Lawmakers said Haley could have the flag lowered before the end of the week. She has 24 hours to do so after signing the measure into law.
The vote came after more than 13 hours of heated debate in the South Carolina House, with opponents of the flag defeating a raft of amendments intended to slow down passage of the measure.
Late into the debate, one lawmaker made an impassioned plea to remove the
“symbol of hate.”
“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday,” cried Representative Jenny Horne, a Republican.
As Horne made her stirring speech, she thrust her finger repeatedly toward the ground while raising her voice, at times fighting back tears.
The desk and chair of late senator Clementa Pinckney, slain in the massacre, was draped in black as his one-time colleagues debated the issue and evoked his memory.
– Symbol of heritage or hate? –
Backers said the vote marks the beginning of a new era in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South.
“Itâ€™s been a long time coming but I always felt this day would come,” tweeted James Clyburn, a longtime member of the US House from South Carolina, who is African American.
“I look forward to Gov Haley expeditiously signing this bill and finally removing the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds.”
Officials said once removed, the flag will be taken to a museum where it will be displayed as an artifact of Southern history.
Longstanding calls for the removal of the banner, but they were rekindled after the killings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
For 15 years, the flag has flown alongside a Confederate memorial on the manicured lawn of the Republican-dominated legislature in the southern state where the Civil War erupted in 1861.
But many see the Civil War banner — which has been adopted by extremist groups — as a symbol of hate and racism.
The banner, which came down after the Southâ€™s defeat in the Civil War, was re-erected at the State House more than 50 years ago to protest the civil rights movement.
Supporters insist, however, that it is simply a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, and for years have strongly opposed its removal.
Following last monthâ€™s shooting, the Confederate flag has already come down outside the Alabama state legislature and several major retailers across the United States have said they will no longer sell it.