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S.C. Senate Moves To Take Down State Capitol's Confederate Flag

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The South Carolina State Senate has started what would have been an almost unthinkable political process a month ago. A move to take down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House. After last month's shooting at a black church in Charles, that gained momentum, and a vote yesterday in the state Senate favored removing the flag. Ben Bradford from member station WFAE reports from the capital, Columbia.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: Near the flagpole holding the Confederate flag, a man holds sign that reads Honk if You Want the Flag Down.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

BRADFORD: On the other side of the flagpole, four others stand wearing confederate symbols, including 20-year-old Jim Collins. He has two Confederate flags - one waving in his hands, another tattooed on his calf.

JIM COLLINS: It's just history, pride, heritage. I got three sides of my family that fought for the Confederacy, and that's something nobody can take away from you.

TOM CLEMENTS: The flag absolutely is heritage.

BRADFORD: Tom Clements, who holds the take it down sign.

CLEMENTS: It's in my blood 'cause I have a Confederate ancestor, but it doesn't mean I honor it. And I think it represents white supremacy and division, and it needs to come down.

BRADFORD: As the day went on, more protesters joined each side, but not everyone fell into such neat boxes. In the lobby of the capital building, about a dozen voices rose in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I was blind, but now I see.

BRADFORD: Fay Evans says her group of churchgoers want the flag down, but that's not the main goal. This is.

FAY EVANS: This is to bring unity and focus and meekness and mildness to an issue that has been so horrendous for so many years.

BRADFORD: But inside the Senate chamber, trade the signs for suits and it had a lot in common with the sidewalk protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

LEE BRIGHT: And remember this flag from out front is not going to do anything to change this nation.

BRADFORD: Senator Lee Bright led those who want to keep the flag where it is.

BRIGHT: All we're going to do is we're going to disrespect these 20-plus-thousand men, black and white, that fought to defend your state.

BRADFORD: The Senate bill would move the flag across the street into a state-run Confederate museum. Senator Vincent Sheheen sponsored the bill.

VINCENT SHEHEEN: One thing I think we all should agree on by now is that this is a symbol, regardless of what you believe it means, that divides us. And we can't afford to be divided anymore.

BRADFORD: The Senate voted 37-to-three to remove the flag. It still faces a lengthy process before becoming law, but Senator Karl Allen called it a win.

KARL ALLEN: It is monumental and historical.

BRADFORD: Folding up the flag was unthinkable just 15 years ago. At the time, it flew on top of the State House, alongside the American flag. Protests and an NAACP-led boycott spurred a compromise that moved the flag to its current location at the edge of the capital grounds. North Charleston pastor Nelson Rivers III helped lead those protests, and he was there yesterday.

NELSON RIVERS: It's been a long time coming. It's a bad bargain for us because it took nine lives to make the state do what it should have done.

BRADFORD: As the Senators left, protesters on both sides still lined the sidewalk. And the Senate votes one more time today, then the bill moves to the house where the vote is expected to be far closer. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford in Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.