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South Carolina governor: It’s time to take down the Confederate flag

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.
  1. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called on the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds in the aftermath of the shooting that killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
  2. For many South Carolinians, the Confederate battle flag, which has flown on statehouse grounds since 1962, is "a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during the time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism," Haley said. "For many others, at the same time, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past."
  3. While South Carolinians are free to fly the flag on their private property, "the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way," Haley said. "We are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds. One hundred and 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come."
  4. Removing the flag requires a two-thirds vote from the state House and Senate. Haley said she will recall the legislature for a special session if necessary.

Why the flag is there — and why it's difficult to remove

South Carolina began flying the Confederate battle flag in 1962, one of several southern states that re-embraced it as a sign of resistance to the Civil Rights movement.

For about 80 years after the end of the Civil War, the flag was mostly used to honor the dead and commemorate battles. As the narrative of the Civil War changed to focus on the heroism of soldiers on both sides, and substituted "states' rights" for slavery as the cause of the conflict, celebrating the Confederate flag was seen as innocuous — a crux of the "heritage, not hate" argument.

But the flag's bigger meaning — it had, after all, been the battle standard of a rebellion founded on the idea that slavery was the "natural and normal condition" of black Americans — was never really lost. As John Coski wrote in his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem, white militias in South Carolina were marching with the flag as a warning to blacks before the 1860s were over.

After World War II, when the federal government began working to fulfill its Reconstruction-era promises to African-Americans, the flag enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity and a new place in white Southern culture. White Southerners waved it when they threw rocks at a college student integrating the University of Alabama and at campaign rallies for segregationist Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign.

Georgia integrated the Confederate flag into its state flag in 1961. Alabama began flying the Confederate flag over its statehouse in 1963. And although black South Carolinians began asking for the flag in their state to be taken down in 1972, it took until 2000 to move it from the capitol dome to a prominent position on the statehouse grounds.

That compromise made it very difficult to move the flag in future. Haley will need a two-thirds vote of both houses of the state legislature to agree that it needs to be removed. She's sworn to recall the legislature for a special session if necessary.

"There will be a time for discussion and debate, but the time for action is coming soon," Haley said.