Senators gave key approval Monday to removing the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in an overwhelming 37-3 vote, the first step in what will be several expected roll-calls this week.
Another procedural two-thirds vote would be needed, likely on Tuesday, to send the bill over to the House of Representatives.
The debate on Monday was often emotional, but never heated or contentious. Supporters shot down amendments filed by supporters of the flag that would have replaced the flag with the first Confederate national flag and held a public referendum on the flag’s future. One amendment was narrowly defeated 22-17 that would have kept the flagpole in place and raised the battle flag once a year for Confederate Memorial Day.
While opponents insisted it was wrong to link the two, supporters left little doubt that the vote was in response to the Emanuel AME Church shootings in Charleston nearly three weeks earlier. A white supremacist killed nine African-Americans during a Bible study on June 17, for reasons police say were race-related.
“We should pass this bill not because of that, or because some national figures say so, or because we’ve been getting emails or pressure one way or the other,” the bill’s sponsor State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said. “I’m asking you to pass this bill for a very simple reason: And that’s because it’s the right thing to do.”
The three “no” votes all came from Upstate Republicans, who represent rural districts that tended to show positive support for the Confederate flag’s history.
“Moving the flag from the Statehouse grounds and thinking it will change history is like removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking it would change their obituary,” Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said. Peeler had not previously indicated his position, deciding to wait until moments before Monday’s vote to speak publicly on the flag for the first time.
Gov. Nikki Haley applauded the Senate vote. “The South Carolina Senate today rose to this historic occasion, with a large majority of members from both parties coming together in the spirit of unity and healing that is binding our state back together and moving us forward in the right direction,” she wrote in a statement.” She urged the House to “follow the Senate’s lead.”
The number of protesters at the Statehouse on Monday was small compared to previous rallies. Media members and curious onlookers outnumbered the few dozen combined individuals gathered around the Confederate Soldiers Monument.