The Sons of Confederate Veterans are rallying to preserve the presence of the Confederate flag on state capitol grounds on Facebook as a national conversation takes place about the role of what many say is a reminder of the country’s racist past in the wake of a shooting that killed nine members of a historically black church in Charleston.
But a look at the last time the state erupted in controversy may illuminate the debate around the flag today.
The initial push started with state Sen. Darrell Jackson, an African American and pastor at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, who was elected to the state Senate in 1992 and began pushing for the flag’s removal shortly thereafter.
The State senate voted overwhelmingly to remove the flag in 1994, but then the House didn’t hold a vote before the legislative session expired. Then more failed attempts to remove the flag in 1995 and 1997, which some say lost Republican Gov. David Beasley his seat, inspired the NAACP to launch a boycott to remove the flag.
At one rally, several legislators who voted to hoist the confederate flag in the 1960s insisted that the flag was never meant to be a permanent fixture at the legislature. A November 1999 report noted that John A. May’s “passion for Confederate heritage was so strong he frequently wore a Confederate uniform around the State House” and it was May who pushed for the flag to be flown at the Capitol in the 1960s.
Former state Rep. George Campsen, who was one of the legislators who voted to raise the flag in 1962, said at gathering at the capitol in December 1999 that it was “mere oversight or omission” that the resolution to raise the flag in memory of the Civil War centennial didn’t include a date to lower it when the four-year celebration ended in 1966. A news article in the Charlotte Observer at the time noted that of the 170 white legislators who approved the measure, some 60 to 65 legislators were still alive and 48 signed a petition to remove the flag.
It was state Sen. John Courson, who had a record of compromise, who pushed through the legislation to remove it from the Capitol and put it on the grounds. Courson and Jackson are friends, which was noted when Courson took over as President Pro Tempore in 2012. But his reign was short-lived, and he resigned as pro tempore in 2014.
But pro-Confederate flag groups and legislators defended the flag fiercely at the time, rallying to support the symbol of the Confederacy. Here are some of the legislators who were most vocal about removing the flag during the last debate.
State Sen. Joe WilsonIn November 1999, then-state Sen. Joe Wilson (R), who now serves in Congress and famously heckled the president with “you lie” during the State of the Union speech, said, “That’s offensive to me that they would take my heritage and make it into a Holocaust era-type description. I find that very offensive, and it’s not true. The Southern heritage, the Confederate heritage is very honorable.”
State Sen. Verne SmithState Sen. Verne Smith (a Democrat who switched parties to give Republicans a majority in 2001, the first time since Reconstruction) told the Observer at the time, “We’ve heard so much from the NAACP since then about how sorry all my ancestors were … I’m just not going to vote to take it down on that basis.” In February 2000, he said, “My heart tells me we are not going to work it out spitting on our forefathers and ancestors.” Smith died in 2006 at the age of 81.
State Rep. Becky Meacham“I don’t like to be threatened, bullied or blackmailed with this boycott,” said state Rep. Becky Meacham (R) in October 1999, as quoted by the Observer. “I feel like we’re being held hostage by a piece of cloth.” Meacham no longer serves in the legislature.
State Sen. Glenn McConnellFormer State Sen. Glenn McConnell (R), who once called the removal of the flag “cultural genocide” before the tide turned in the late 1990s, was at first resolute in opposing removal. “This state is not going to succumb to economic terrorism. We are a democratic government and don’t take dictates well.”
Just before the vote, McConnell said he was going to “miss” the flag at the state Capitol and that he “already has a sense of loss for the moment when I look up at the dome and the flag isn’t there anymore.” McConnell left the legislature in 2014 to take over as president of the College of Charleston, a position for which many pointed out he had a very thin resume.
State Sen. Harvey Peeler“Race relations will not be the same in this state in my lifetime if you take that flag down,” Republican state Sen. Harvey Peeler said, according to an Associated Press report in April 2000. He said “the rebels would yell” if the flag was removed because they do not want to be told what to do. Peeler currently serves as Senate Majority leader.
This article originally stated that Beasley was a Democrat. He’s a Republican.