By Harriet McLeod
South Carolina’s House of Representatives is due to begin debate Wednesday on a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol’s grounds, where it has flown for five decades despite being viewed by many as a symbol of slavery.
The bill passed the state Senate by a wide margin on Tuesday with only three “no” votes and has the backing of South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley.
The bill’s swift progress marks a dramatic turnaround in sentiment from only a few months ago.
Its sudden impetus stems from the murders of nine black churchgoers gunned down by a white man on June 17 during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, about two hours southeast of the state capital, Columbia.
Photos of the white man charged in the shooting, showed him posing with a Confederate flag on a website bearing a racist manifesto.
The bill needs to pass two readings in the House before it goes to the governor’s desk, perhaps as soon as Thursday. A poll conducted by the Post and Courier newspaper indicated that the bill has more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
State Representative Wendell Gilliard, a black Democrat who represents Charleston, said the bill will likely face conservative opposition in the 124-member lower House.
“There’s going to be some political posturing and grandstanding,” Gilliard said.
It could be slowed by amendments from a handful of Republicans seeking to replace the current Confederate battle flag with another historical southern or Confederate army flag.
A similar move failed in the Senate on Monday.
The flag’s dwindling defenders, who deny the flag is tainted by slavery, argue that it deserves to continue flying.
They say it honors those who fought and died for the state and the southern Confederacy on the losing side during the 1861-1865 Civil War. Critics note that the flag is an emblem of a four-year government that ceased to exist 150 years ago.
The flag was not raised atop the State House until 1961, to mark the centennial of the Civil War. Critics called it a slap in the face to the black civil rights movement that was gathering steam at the time.
In 2000 it was moved to a Civil War memorial only yards from the entrance to the capitol.