NPR logo The Complicated Political History Of The Confederate Flag

The Complicated Political History Of The Confederate Flag

The Confederate flag flies near the South Carolina Statehouse, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Tensions over the Confederate flag flying in the shadow of South Carolina's Capitol rose this week in the wake of the killings of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C. i

The Confederate flag flies near the South Carolina Statehouse, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Tensions over the Confederate flag flying in the shadow of South Carolina's Capitol rose this week in the wake of the killings of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C. Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press hide caption

toggle caption Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press
The Confederate flag flies near the South Carolina Statehouse, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Tensions over the Confederate flag flying in the shadow of South Carolina's Capitol rose this week in the wake of the killings of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

The Confederate flag flies near the South Carolina Statehouse, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Tensions over the Confederate flag flying in the shadow of South Carolina's Capitol rose this week in the wake of the killings of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

Last week's tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine black parishioners gathered for a Bible study has renewed the debate over one of the most controversial Southern symbols — the Confederate flag.

On Monday, a cascade of both Republicans and Democrats endorsed removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia. South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley held a press conference Monday afternoon, flanked by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, to call for the flag to be removed. She was joined by the state's Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham — who is running for president — and Tim Scott — the chamber's only African-American Republican.

Here's quick primer on how we got here:

What is the history of the Confederate flag?

Demonstrators carry Confederate flags as they leave the entrance of the South Carolina Statehouse after the removal of the flag in Columbia, S.C., on July 1, 2000. i

Demonstrators carry Confederate flags as they leave the entrance of the South Carolina Statehouse after the removal of the flag in Columbia, S.C., on July 1, 2000. Eric Draper/Associated Press. hide caption

toggle caption Eric Draper/Associated Press.
Demonstrators carry Confederate flags as they leave the entrance of the South Carolina Statehouse after the removal of the flag in Columbia, S.C., on July 1, 2000.

Demonstrators carry Confederate flags as they leave the entrance of the South Carolina Statehouse after the removal of the flag in Columbia, S.C., on July 1, 2000.

Eric Draper/Associated Press.

In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union just months after Abraham Lincoln, from the anti-slavery Republican Party, was elected president. In April 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C.

Ten other states would eventually follow South Carolina in secession, forming the Confederate States of America. However, of the three flags the Confederacy would go on to adopt, none are the Confederate flag that is traditionally recognized today. The "Stars and Bars" flag, currently the subject of controversy, was actually the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war ended, the symbol became a source of Southern pride and heritage, as well as a remembrance of Confederate soldiers who died in battle. But as racism and segregation gripped the nation in the century following, it became a divisive and violent emblem of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups. It was also the symbol of the States' Rights Democratic Party, or "Dixiecrats," that formed in 1948 to oppose civil-rights platforms of the Democratic Party. Then-South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond was the splinter group's nominee for president that same year; he won 39 electoral votes.

Now, the flag is a frequent emblem of modern white supremacist groups. The alleged Charleston shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, was photographed holding the Confederate flag in images on his website. Not all southerners, who believe the flag should be flown, however, see it as a racist symbol. They see it, instead, as a symbol of southern pride or as a way to remember ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

Why is it flying at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C.?

The Confederate flag flies on the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., in 2000. i

The Confederate flag flies on the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., in 2000. Eric Draper/Associated Press hide caption

toggle caption Eric Draper/Associated Press
The Confederate flag flies on the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., in 2000.

The Confederate flag flies on the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., in 2000.

Eric Draper/Associated Press

The flag was first flown over the state Capitol dome (passed by the Democratic Legislature) in 1962 to mark the centennial of the start of the Civil War, but many saw it as a reaction to the civil-rights movement and school desegregation. For nearly four decades, it continued to be a controversial issue in the Palmetto State. A 1994 nonbinding referendum placed on the GOP primary ballot found that three-in-four voters said the flag should keep flying. That same year, black ministers and the NAACP threatened a boycott of the state if the flag didn't come down, and business leaders sued to remove the flag.

But in 2000, a compromise was reached — the battle flag would be removed from atop the dome and a smaller, square version would be placed at a less-prominent place on the Statehouse grounds — on a 20-foot pole next to the 30-foot Confederate monument. But that didn't end the controversy, and many years of protests, criticism and boycotts followed.

What is the process to remove the flag in South Carolina?

The "Get In Step" marchers pass by a small group of Confederate Flag supporters Tuesday, April 4, 2000, near Wells, S.C., on their way to Orangeburg on the third day of the march to Columbia to have the flag taken down from the Statehouse. i

The "Get In Step" marchers pass by a small group of Confederate Flag supporters Tuesday, April 4, 2000, near Wells, S.C., on their way to Orangeburg on the third day of the march to Columbia to have the flag taken down from the Statehouse. Mary Ann Chastain /Associated Press hide caption

toggle caption Mary Ann Chastain /Associated Press
The "Get In Step" marchers pass by a small group of Confederate Flag supporters Tuesday, April 4, 2000, near Wells, S.C., on their way to Orangeburg on the third day of the march to Columbia to have the flag taken down from the Statehouse.

The "Get In Step" marchers pass by a small group of Confederate Flag supporters Tuesday, April 4, 2000, near Wells, S.C., on their way to Orangeburg on the third day of the march to Columbia to have the flag taken down from the Statehouse.

Mary Ann Chastain /Associated Press

According to the 2000 change, a two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate is required to remove the flag. However, there may be a workaround, and the law itself could be changed by a simple majority. The Post & Courier has a running tally of state lawmakers and how they stand on the issue. At her press conference, Haley said if the Legislature doesn't finish its session by acting to remove the flag, she will call an additional session.

Also under the 2000 compromise: lowering the flag requires approval of the Legislature, which is why even after Haley ordered the American and South Carolina flags ordered to half-staff following last Wednesday's massacre, the Confederate flag remained at full staff.

What other states have had controversies about the Confederate flag?

Protesters close their eyes in silent prayer as they stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. i

Protesters close their eyes in silent prayer as they stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press hide caption

toggle caption Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press
Protesters close their eyes in silent prayer as they stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C.

Protesters close their eyes in silent prayer as they stand on the South Carolina Statehouse steps during a rally to take down the Confederate flag, Saturday, June 20, 2015, in Columbia, S.C.

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

Many Southern states' current flags are inspired by the "Rebel flag." Georgia's flag was changed to incorporate part of the Confederate flag into its own in 1956. From 2001 to 2003, a new flag that removed the more prominent emblem was adopted, and instead it featured the state seal with past flags at the bottom. The design was widely panned, though, and, in 2003, a new state flag was adopted. The new design instead draws from parts of the actual flag of the Confederate States of America and not the Confederate battle flag.

Mississippi's state flag remains the only one in the U.S. that still features the battle flag prominently. In 2001, Magnolia State voters decided to keep the current flag by a wide margin. The University of Mississippi, or "Ole Miss," has also faced controversy. In 1997, waving Confederate flags at football games was banned. "Colonel Reb," their Confederate soldier mascot, was retired in 2003 and, "From Dixie With Love" was dropped from the marching band set list.

What have top Republicans and presidential candidates said about the flag?

The question of whether to remove the controversial flag has played a role in presidential politics thanks to the state's early primary status.

Among current 2016 hopefuls, only Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has explicitly endorsed the controversial flag's removal, noting he decided to remove it from the Florida statehouse grounds to a museum during his tenure.

Before Haley's press conference, other GOP candidates, and potential candidates, had walked a line on the flag, either declining to weigh in or underscoring that it's a decision that should be up to South Carolina. But afterward, there was a flood of support from many candidates. Here's a brief roundup of where others stand and stood:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had said he wouldn't weigh in until after funerals of the Charleston victims. But then he tweeted this afternoon, "I am glad @nikkihaley is calling for the Confederate flag to come down. I support her decision."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he hoped the state would "make the right choice for the people of South Carolina"; as a state legislator, he voted for a bill that would have kept the Confederate flag on the Florida Capitol grounds in order to protect historical monuments.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also said in a statement that he supported Haley's decision, saying it "honors the people of Charleston, and the families of the victims of last week's horrific hate crime. Removing the flag is an act of healing and unity, that allows us to find a shared purpose based on the values that unify us. May God continue to be with the families of the victims in Charleston, and the great people of South Carolina."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press" that the decision was "not an issue for someone running for president."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told the Washington Post that it was a matter for South Carolinians to decide, but that "I understand the passions that this debate evokes on both sides."

John Kasich would support removing the flag before Haley's press conference and afterward he said, "the flag should come down."

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, supported its removal in the past. He tweeted: "[T]o many, it is a symbol of racial hatred" and should be taken down.

Several Republican members of Congress have also said they support the Confederate flag's removal; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., endorsed the flag's removal, calling it "a painful reminder of racial oppression." And, he added, "the time for a state to fly it has long since passed."

After Haley's press conference, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also issued a statement saying that he "support[s] the call by Governor Haley and South Carolina leaders to remove the Confederate battle flag from state house grounds."

Correction June 22, 2015

An earlier version of this story stated the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1961. The correct year is 1861. It was also updated to correct the 1962 legislative process that first flew the flag in South Carolina, which was passed by the state Legislature and did not go through Gov. Fritz Hollings.

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