Magazine article Insight on the News

Gov. Not Just Whistling Dixie: South Carolina's GOP Leader Has Upset the Party by Taking a Stand on the Confederate Battle Flag

Magazine article Insight on the News

Gov. Not Just Whistling Dixie: South Carolina's GOP Leader Has Upset the Party by Taking a Stand on the Confederate Battle Flag

Article excerpt

He stunned his fellow conservatives first by declaring his support for a controversial measure, then by taking his case directly to his constituents with a speech broadcast on public television. "As I read the Bible and was on my knees praying, I came away with a strong feeling, a conviction, that it was time the leadership of this state stepped forward and asked people to look into their hearts and see if we couldn't resolve this issue," said Gov. David Beasley, announcing that he favors lowering the Confederate battle flag flying atop the State House.

The governor's declaration represents a surprising turnaround. Until three months ago, he maintained that the flag - a symbol of valor to some and of racism to others - should stay where it is unless a reasonable compromise could be found. He now believes that the political climate in the state has made such a compromise imperative.

Indeed, Beasley, a deeply religious man, identifies with what he terms a "ministry of reconciliation" sweeping the country. His conviction may explain why the first public forum he addressed after making his decision was the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Members of the gathering responded to his gesture with two standing ovations.

Perhaps more to the point, however, has been the states alarming rise in hate crimes, including an upsurge in Ku Klux Klan activity and several burnings of black churches. In November, two men who'd attended a white-supremacist rally to keep the flag flying wounded three African-Americans outside a nightclub in Pelion, a town south of Columbia, the state capital. Authorities have called the incident a racial crime predicated on the flag issue.

"That is exactly what blacks have been saying for years in asking that the flag be brought down from the seat of government," declared the Myrtle Beach Sun News. Beasley has come to view the situation much the same way. "We have allowed the flag to fly in a vacuum," says Ginny Wolfe, the governor's spokeswoman. "It's being defined by extremists and hate groups. We want to define it in terms of our heritage and take it out of the hands of the extremists,

The disputed flag was raised above the State House dome nearly n years ago to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. "A lot of people don't understand that its only been there since 1962," says Wolfe. Long considered a symbol of oppression by the state's black population, it has been an enduring source of controversy.

State legislators have made numerous attempts to craft legislation to lower the flag, all of which failed, including a 1994 compromise bill called the Heritage Act passed by the Senate but derailed on a technicality in the House. The legislation called for the relocation of the flag from the State House to the Capitol grounds near a Confederate monument. The governor is pushing for a similar bill. …

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