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Confederate flag debate gets first real test in South Carolina

Lawmakers in South Carolina are preparing to decide whether to keep the Confederate flag flying on the statehouse grounds
S.C. lawmakers debate Confederate flag on capitol grounds 02:51

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina lawmakers on Monday began debating whether to bring the Confederate flag down outside the Capitol, starting with a pair of senators - one white, one black - whose families arrived in the state before the Civil War.

The white senator, who for decades fought off attempts to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds, has come to the same conclusion that his black colleague arrived at long ago - that the rebel flag no longer represents the valor of Southern soldiers but the racism that led them to separate from the United States more than 150 years ago.

Robert Hayes (L) calls Tom Clements (R) a "scally wag" as lawmakers vote on removing the Confederate Flag from the capitol grounds outside the South Carolina Statehouse July 6, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford, Getty Images

The Confederate flag "has more to do with what was going on in the 1960s as opposed to the 1860s," said Republican Sen. Larry Martin, who is white and whose family came to South Carolina's northern backcountry in the early 1800s.

Martin said he changed his mind after nine black churchgoers were shot to death during Bible study at a historic African-American church in Charleston by a man police say was motivated by racial hatred.

Civil War sites grapple with Confederate flag use 02:32

Then there was Sen. Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat who helped write the compromise that took the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome in 2000 and put it in its current location on a pole on the capitol's front lawn. His family was also in South Carolina during the Civil War. His great-grandfather's brother left a plantation and joined the Union army when Gen. William Sherman came storming through Columbia.

Jackson said he regretted not going further to get rid of the flag completely 15 years ago. But he welcomed the chance now to honor his great-grandfather, freed slave Ishmael Jackson.

"You said we lost the war. No we didn't. Not Ishmael Jackson and the 57 percent of people who looked like him. As far as they are concerned, they won the war," Jackson said.

The Senate rejected a pair of amendments Monday that would only fly the flag on Confederate Memorial Day and one that would leave the flag's fate up to a popular vote. Debate continued into the afternoon.

State Sen. Lee Bright, who suggested the popular vote, said the Confederate flag has been misused by people like Dylann Roof, charged with nine counts of murder for the church shootings who posed in pictures with the rebel banner.

"I'm more against talking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we're placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high," said Bright, a Republican.

A survey asking lawmakers how they intend to vote after Haley's call to remove the flag found at least 33 senators and 83 House members agreed with her, satisfying the two-thirds majority required by law to alter the flag's position. But the survey by The Post and Courier newspaper, the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press asked only about whether to keep or lower the flag. It did not include any possible changes that could cause the proposal to lose support.

The flag will not come down Monday, even with the support of Gov. Nikki Haley. There are indications the proposal could have a tougher road in the House. Some powerful Republicans have not said how they will vote, including Speaker Jay Lucas.

Confederate flag opponents, supporters rally outside South Carolina capitol 00:30

Some Republicans want to keep the flagpole and put a different flag on it. Suggestions have included the U.S. flag, the South Carolina flag and a flag that may have been flown by Confederate troops but does not have the same connections as the red banner with the blue cross and white stars.

Democrats have said they cannot support any flag linked to the Confederacy. Haley and business leaders agree.

"There is no good-looking Confederate flag. It all stands for the same thing - secession," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Outside the Statehouse, dozens of protesters began to arrive, all watched by even more officers inside and outside the capitol. Some called for the flag to come down. Others, such as Nelson Waller in his rebel flag tie, said the state was giving in to Northern liberals and civil rights activists.

Why S.C. activist removed the Confederate flag 02:05

Fifteen years ago, there was a consensus that South Carolina - the last state to fly a Confederate flag on its Capitol dome - needed to pull down the banner. But back then, lawmakers spent months discussing whether to build a "healing pool" between the Statehouse and Confederate soldier monument with a statue honoring black soldiers who fought for the Union on the other end. Other ideas included displaying authentic flags in glass cases as a history lesson or including the Confederate flag in a circle of flags of historical significance. The compromise was reached a few weeks before the session ended.

A woman who was arrested last month for removing the Confederate flag from the front of the South Carolina Statehouse told CBSN that she would "absolutely" do it again because the banner is a symbol of white supremacy, hatred and racial terror.

"I just felt that it was very important that it be a group of citizens ... who go up and bring that flag down - even if they put it back up a minute later - just to know that's how strongly we felt about it," Bree Newsome said last week.

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