Passions may run high on both sides of the debate over the Confederate battle flag, but the South Carolina Senate voted overwhelmingly on Monday to remove a symbol of Southern rebellion that has flown over the state Capitol since 1961.
Although the flag was placed to mark the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, it remained in place through much of the civil rights era – a tumultuous period in American history when Southern states resisted federal legislation aimed at protecting minorities. The Confederate battle flag, to many Americans, particularly those of color, is offensive and represents racism, even more so since last month’s tragedy in Charleston.
The debate over the flag in the South Carolina Senate was conciliatory. Most legislators wanted the issue behind them so they could begin to heal the wounds that have stemmed from the senseless, racially motivated murders in Charleston. Some, however, seemed clueless about the debate.
At the beginning of the debate, over the flag, state Sen. Lee Bright, a Republican who represents Greenville and Spartanburg counties, went into a peculiar, incoherent rant against same-sex marriage.
“It’s time to make our stand and we’re not doing it. We can rally together and talk about a flag all we want but the Devil is taking control of this land and we’re not stopping him. It’s time to make our stand,” Bright said in a three-minute speech that has since gone viral. “Let South Carolina discuss it.”
Later in the debate while presenting an amendment to replace the battle flag with the first national flag of the Confederacy, Bright launched into another incoherent rant rife with revisionist history about the nature of the Civil War. It wasn’t about slavery, he declared, but “states’ rights.”
“[Confederate soldiers from South Carolina] were fighting for their state. They were fighting against an oppressive federal government that oppresses us today,” said Bright, who claims to have read Palmetto State’s declaration of secession. “If I believed that [slavery] is what people fought for, I’d be there with you climbing up to take that flag down. But that’s not what they fought for.”
If Bright truly read South Carolina’s declaration of secession, he would realize that the slavery, which is mentioned 18 times in the document, was at the core of its separation from the Union, specifically, the Northern states’ resistance to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that any slave who escaped captivity be returned to their “owner.”
“For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution,” South Carolina’s declaration of secession reads before specifically mentioning states that passed measures against the Fugitive Slave Act. “Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”
The animosity toward Northern states and President Abraham Lincoln – against whom there are many valid criticisms, including his abuse of executive power and assault on civil liberties – continues in the document. It goes on to exalt the “right of property in slaves” and blast the denunciations of slavery as a “sinful” institution.
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,” the secession document further states. “He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
One South Carolina native who used to espouse rhetoric about “states’ rights” being the primary motivation behind Civil War has changed his tone. Once known as the “Southern Avenger,” Jack Hunter, who worked for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., until his past defenses of the Confederacy became news, recently explained his shift.
“I’ve heard countless arguments for many years about why the Confederate flag doesn’t stand for slavery or racism. Some arguments are valid,” Hunter wrote. “But whatever your favorite talking point for defending the Confederate flag, it does not change the fact that millions see it as a symbol of racial terrorism. It does not change the fact that black Americans have many good reasons for seeing it as such.”
The debate over the Confederate battle flag now heads to the South Carolina House of Representatives.