The fact that the debate occurred at all is proof that unearned suffering has the power to redeem. South Carolina. First to leave the Union. Instigators of the Civil War. Last to be reconstructed. One of the poorest states. First to leave the Democratic Party under the leadership of Strom Thurmond in 1948. Home of Bob Jones University, famous for refusing federal aid rather than integrate.
At 8:00 p.m. they took a break to “stand at ease” until 8:30 p.m. I called Rep. Wendell Gilliard’s cell phone. I could see him on the screen – he did not reach for his phone. Next, I called Rep. Joseph Neal, who frequently advises Rev. Jackson on S.C. issues. He called me back few seconds later. I mumbled some incomprehensible words of encouragement. Fifteen minutes later he was speaking at the well. Echoing President Obama’s eulogy of Senator Pinckney, Rep. Joseph Neal implored God’s grace. “Grace is not earned. Grace should include all of us. Not just one way grace, but universal grace. This body should give a moment of grace to the suffering families in Charleston who are still alive. All of SC needs grace because we've got some hard decisions to make and the whole world is watching us. Will SC change, or will it hide behind heritage as an excuse to hate?"
In one of the more callous moments of the evening, in response to bi-partisan calls for “grace”, GOP Majority Leader and Charleston State Rep. James H. Merrill, an avowed Catholic PR guy, said “I don’t know shinola about grace.” His amendments were aimed, he said, at giving “a little bit of solace to both sides.” He also proposed that the Confederate Relic Room get a state budget appropriation in 2016.
The black legislators acquitted themselves as statesmen. Joe Neal gave a brief history lesson about the one million enslaved Africans in South Carolina at the time of the Civil War. He also refuted amendments calling for memorials to blacks who fought for the Confederacy with the fact that there were very few black Confederates, because the measure was not approved until one month before Appomattox.
According to Rep. John King, “People have threatened that I won't be re-elected. The seat does not belong to me. It belongs to the people of District 49. I am not proud to be a South Carolinian. Make SC an inviting place...for all people.
“You cannot serve two masters...you cannot wave two flags. It is our flag - the flag of the United States of America. Put the Confederate banner it its proper place in the relic room,” said Rep. Cezar McKnight.
Blacks and whites in South Carolina are as genetically intertwined as they are politically estranged. Young African American Mr. Bamberg from Bamberg worried from the well that the KKK will celebrate in front of the flag if the bill is amended. There has got be an interesting story about the ancestry of black Mr. Bamberg from Bamberg. And of course, Strom Thurmond’s son and bi-racial granddaughter championed the change all week on national media.
The media star of the debate was pretty blonde, passionate Jenny Horne from Charleston. Her voice steadily rising, “I’m sorry, I have heard enough about heritage. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis. But that does not matter. It is about the people of South Carolina. I will tell you that I have it on good authority that the world is watching this debate.” Indeed we were. FB was on fire with quotes, comments, questions, opinions. Jenny continued, “We need to follow the example of the Senate and remove this flag today because this issue is not getting any better with age. Speaking on behalf of the people of Charleston, this flag offends my friends…I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful.”
Jenny was not without opposition. Her fellow Charlestonian, James Merrill, sarcastically referred to appreciating colleagues who were"treading (sic) on emotion".
Rep. Jenny Horne and House Majority Leader Rep. James Merrill went at it - both from Charleston, both GOP. Fascinating. He insisted on attempting to amend the Senate version of the bill to delay removal of the flag, while Jenny kept her promise to attempt to table the amendment, but she lost. So they begin to debate the substance of the amendment. "Doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. Find the courage to do the right thing for the people of SC," Jenny Horne. It is not clear to me that Rep. Horne’s comments changed the course of the debate. Each of the 60-something amendments were ultimately tabled . Still, it was thrilling political theater.
Rep. Bedenfield proposed new SC state flag that would honor veterans who fought to defend this state against an "over oppressive federal government..." I could not help wondering how he feels about THIS federal government. There were a few moments of levity. As the night wore on, Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter (long-time fighter in the flag war) asked for order, then scolded the speaker, "with this crowd at this hour, you are going to have to bang that gavel harder, baby." Rep. David Mack told his colleagues, “slavery was a perfect business model – free labor. But it only works if you don’t have a moral compass.”
The black legislators seemed to be running the show. Rep. Lonnie Hosey spoke quietly but directly to Rep. Quinn, “I need you to be a hero.” Mr. Quinn represents Lexington, SC, the district that the assassin lived in. He is one of those tall square-jawed guys that Southerners typically elect as governor. Quinn verbally bristled when someone suggested that he did not understand the plight of the families who lost loved ones in the massacre. In college, he was President of Young Republicans and got elected to the legislature at 23. Other than color, he and Senator Clement Pinckney probably had a lot in common. Finally, at the end of the evening, Mr. Quinn acquiesced and offered his own amendment up to be tabled, opening a path to adoption of a “clean bill” without amendments that would not require a House/Senate conference committee. Quinn will have hard questions to answer when he returns to Lexington, a mostly white suburb of Columbia.
A turning point had been reached near midnight when Rep. James Smith from Richland took to the podium. He is that rarest of political species, a white male Southern Democrat elected official under the age of 70. Smith hinted that a compromise was in the works and added to our understanding of Reconstruction history, “Flying the flag dishonors General Robert E. Lee and violates the terms of surrender at Appomattox.” And then he proceeded to outline a new aspect of the debate. “For nearly 100 years, we got along fine without the Confederate flag. It was brought out in 1960 as a middle finger to the federal government. ”
My friend Cheryl said, “I can’t believe I’m watching CSPAN.” My arch-conservative friend was surprised to realize that there are no ballot initiatives in most Southern states. He wondered why they didn’t just vote on the flag. My fried Jim summed it up on Facebook this way, “that flag…was ordered up as an official state government declaration of resistance to giving equal protection of the laws to all of its citizens.”
What can we learn from the turmoil in South Carolina? Somehow Governor Haley and the legislature found enough common ground in the sorrow over the blood of those slaughtered in the massacre to achieve a symbolic, yet significant change. Facebook offered a neutral platform where all were welcome – black, white, GOP, Dems, male, female, old, young, straight, other. If we want to influence government, we have to be willing to pay attention to it. We must learn to act together for the good of the country without bloodshed. The nation won’t crumble into dust under black leadership now, any more than it did in 1865. If there is any way to have a trans-racial action plan that aspires to truth and reconciliation, someone has to be willing to be a hero.