The joint resolution to place the flag on the State House dome occurred in the midst of the celebration of both the Civil War Centennial and the South’s continued “massive resistance” against efforts aimed at ending segregation.
In February 1962 the General Assembly passed a joint resolution that placed a version of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag atop the dome of the State House. Generating little attention or publicity at the time, the presence of the flag above the Palmetto State’s legislative seat would become an enduring public controversy in the 1980s and 1990s. Controversy would linger after the banner’s removal from the dome and its placement on a flagstaff behind the monument to South Carolina’s Confederate soldiers on the State House grounds in July 2000.
The placing of the Confederate banner in the public and political arena marked a change in the way that white South Carolinians paid tribute to Confederate symbolism. In the years following the Civil War and in the first half of the twentieth century, use of the emblem had primarily belonged to veteran and heritage groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Kappa Alpha college fraternity. Following the 1948 “Dixiecrat” campaign, and the use of the flag as a symbol by the presidential candidate and South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, popular display of the flag increased.
The joint resolution to place the flag on the State House dome occurred in the midst of the celebration of both the Civil War Centennial and the South’s continued “massive resistance” against efforts aimed at ending segregation. Many white South Carolinians came to see the flag as a symbol of an earlier southern resistance in the face of outside intrusion, while others simply viewed it as representative of the state’s strong connection to its past. Moreover, there was precedent for displaying the battle flag: a flag was first hung in the chamber of the S.C. House of Representatives in 1938 and in the S.C. Senate in 1956.
Several elements fueled the birth of the controversy in the 1980s and 1990s. Black South Carolinians, working through grassroots organizations and with larger national organizations, had found their political voice and could bring pressure on state government to remove what they considered an offensive symbol. Meanwhile, the growth of a new national conservative movement created a strong traditionalist movement among southern whites. New organizations such as the South Carolina Council of Conservative Citizens joined with heritage groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to fight the removal of the flag. Finally, the controversy coincided with rapid economic development that brought to the region an influx of new arrivals with little or no connection to the state’s Confederate past. New and old South Carolinians alike worried that the flag controversy would slow the pace of economic expansion.
In 1996, influenced by the concerns of the South Carolina business community, Republican governor David Beasley expressed his support for building an African American history monument on the State House grounds and the placement of the Confederate flag at the monument to Confederate soldiers, a compromise that had been discussed since the 1994 legislative session. Though receiving support from the legislative black caucus and well-known South Carolinians such as Strom Thurmond and Richard Riley, Beasley faced dissension in his own party and severe criticism from Republican attorney general Charlie Condon. Conflict grew as racial incidents plagued South Carolina in 1996, including the opening of a “Klan museum” in Laurens, a rash of church burnings, and the wounding of three black teenagers by Klansmen returning from a proflag rally.
The final decision to remove the controversial symbol came in 2000 amidst increasing pressure from the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, as well as a national boycott of South Carolina instituted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a special ceremony held on July 1, 2000, two cadets from the Citadel, one white and one African American, lowered the flag from the dome and placed it near the Confederate monument on the grounds of the State House. The flags were also removed from the chambers of the S.C. House and Senate. The NAACP vowed to continue its economic boycott, however, with the goal of having the flag removed completely from the State House grounds.
Martinez, J. Michael, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNich-Su, eds. Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
Prince, K. Michael. Rally ’round the Flag, Boys!: South Carolina and the Confederate Flag. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.