South Carolina lawmakers vote to open debate over Confederate flag – Reuters


COLUMBIA, S.C. South Carolina lawmakers voted to open debate on Tuesday on removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in the aftermath of last week’s massacre of nine African-Americans at a historic Charlestown church.

Both chambers of the legislature voted overwhelmingly to take up the issue as hundreds of people, chanting “Take it down,” rallied outside the capitol building in Columbia, about 120 miles (190 km) from Wednesday’s shooting. The Senate will consider a similar measure.

The Civil War-era flag of the pro-slavery Confederacy has become a lightning rod for outrage over the attack and the racist motives that apparently lay behind the shooting.

“Cultures and generations change. No one should have any association with something that is used as an excuse to take nine lives just because of different skin color,” said Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat who has served in the South Carolina Senate for more than three decades.

Federal authorities are investigating the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a hate crime. The accused gunman, a 21-year-white man now charged with nine counts of murder, had posed with a Confederate flag in photos posted online with a racist manifesto.

The suspect, Dylann Roof, bought the semiautomatic handgun used in the shooting at a shop in West Columbia, about 25 miles from his home and 3 miles from the State House, according to NBC News, citing unnamed officials familiar with the investigators. The sale was entirely legal, the report said, even though Roof was facing a misdemeanor drug charge.

“We do not give out information on customers and stuff like that,” a man identifying himself as an employee of Shooter’s Choice told Reuters.

Just hours after politicians in several southern states began calling for the removal of the Confederate flag on Monday, some of the nation’s largest retailers announced they were halting sales of related merchandise.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Sears Holdings Corp were quickly followed by Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc in announcing they were halting sales in stores or online of items bearing the Confederate flag.

One of the most prominent U.S. flag makers, Valley Forge Flag, said on Tuesday it would stop manufacturing and selling Confederate flags.

“We hope that this decision will show our support for those affected by the recent events in Charleston and, in some small way, help to foster racial unity and tolerance in our country,” the Pennsylvania-based company said in a statement.

Opponents of flying the flag on the State House grounds consider it an emblem of slavery that has become a symbol for racism and xenophobia in the United States.

Supporters say it represents the South’s heritage and culture, as well as a memorial to Confederate casualties during the 1861-65 Civil War.

As the “Stars and Bars” fluttered only yards away on the grounds of the State House, a crowd of about 1,000 listened to politicians and civil rights leaders voice their support for taking down the battle flag.

“Anyone who gets in front of this train is going to get run over,” said Leon Howard, a state legislator, referring to the political momentum gathering behind the initiative.

The crowd heard prayers offered in the memory of State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a longtime advocate of the flag’s removal. Pickney, pastor of the Charleston church, was one of the shooting victims. President Barack Obama will attend his funeral on Friday.

The Confederate flag controversy is the latest flashpoint in a year of intense debate over U.S. race relations, sparked by the killings of unarmed black men by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Baltimore. The outcry has spawned a reinvigorated civil rights movement under the “Black Lives Matter” banner.

Republican Governor Nikki Haley threw her support behind removing the flag on Monday. She called on lawmakers, whose legislative year wraps up this week, to address the issue over the summer and said she would order a special session if they did not.

It would take a two-thirds majority vote by both chambers of the legislature to undo the state law that requires the flag to fly at a memorial to Confederate soldiers on the State House grounds.

That law was the result of a 2000 compromise that removed it from atop the State House, where it was first put up a half century ago at the peak of resistance to federal efforts to end segregation in the South.

In Mississippi, the Republican governor and lieutenant governor are defending the flag amid calls by some state legislators to remove the symbol from the state flag.

“The same discussion South Carolinians are having now is one that Mississippians had 14 years ago when nearly two-thirds of our state voted to keep our current flag,” said Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, echoing statements by Governor Phil Bryant.

On Monday, Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn became the first Republican in state history to publicly support a flag change when he called the Confederate emblem “a point of offense that needs to be removed.”

Virginia, which was also part of the Confederacy, will no longer allow special vehicle license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans group that feature the flag, Governor Terry McAuliffe said on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Emily Le Coz in Jackson, Mississippi; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

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