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How the rebellion against South Carolina’s Confederate flag grew

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Inside the old granite State House in South Carolina, one day after the massacre in a Charleston church, an African-American receptionist politely gave everyone who called to complain about the Confederate battle flag the same response: "Sorry, there’s nothing to be done."

But Karen Hunter, one of those callers, would not let it go. "If we all had that attitude," Hunter told her, "we’d still be slaves." Within hours, Hunter drafted an online petition that demanded the flag’s removal from the State House grounds. It would be signed by more than 566,000 people.

At the nearby Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Lewis F. Gossett Jr., president of a powerful South Carolina business group, felt his emotions swell as black and white parishioners locked hands and mourned the nine African-Americans who were killed in Charleston on June 17. The next morning, he emailed his executive committee: It was time for their organization to lead a charge to take down the Confederate flag. "I think it could happen very fast," he told them.

Fifty miles east, in his district of rolling farms, state Rep. Grady A. Brown, a Democrat and a great-grandson of a Confederate soldier, sorted through 1,000 messages, the largest volume of mail he had received since joining the General Assembly. People poured out their souls on "page after page after page," he said. The vast majority asked him to remove the flag. So, he concluded, that is what he would do.

The stunningly quick collapse of support for the Confederate battle flag has been told largely through the public pronouncements of one governor, Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina, who persuaded the Legislature to reconsider the flag’s prominent perch on the capitol grounds. But behind the scenes, powerful forces – capitalism, Christianity, social media, college sports and a Republican Party eager to extricate itself from the past – were converging. Within five days, decades of resistance in South Carolina, a state that had held fiercely to its Confederate identity, fell away.

Some of it was a result of simple demographics, as the aging white leaders with the deepest attachment to the banner found themselves wielding less sway among modern bases of power. The Legislature is increasingly drawn from a younger generation, whose politics were forged well after the battle against civil rights and whose members are more solicitous of the state’s business class than its sons of the Confederacy. On social media, prominent black thinkers shaped and dominated a conversation about why the flag must go, setting off a river of retweets and reverberations, while flag supporters trying to counter the argument were shouted down.

And, in the country’s most churchgoing region, Christianity played a potent role. White worshippers described themselves as pained by guilt and moved beyond measure after watching relatives of the nine victims in Charleston deliver an unexpected message, distilling the essence of Christianity at a bond hearing for the suspect: We forgive.

The consensus among the state’s establishment to remove the flag came about, many civic leaders said, also because of what did not happen: There was no violent reaction, which made the old antagonisms harder to summon. No swarms of outsiders flooded the State House. Instead, the small state and the small city of Charleston seemed proud of their comportment, and eager to atone for the hurt.

Defenses Dry Up

No one knows the arguments against removing the Confederate battle flag better than state Sen. Paul Thurmond, a Republican who is the son of Strom Thurmond, the longtime U.S. senator from South Carolina and a segregationist candidate for president. Just after the killings in Charleston, he began to rehearse them.

This is not a time to politicize a tragedy, Thurmond thought as the first calls to pull down the flag surfaced. And South Carolina had years ago reached a compromise in the controversy, moving the flag off the capitol dome to a nearby memorial.

But like many others, Thurmond said his mind had been changed inside a church. In South Carolina, Wednesday Bible study – when the killings took place – is nearly as sacred as Sunday services, for both whites and blacks.

Just after the massacre, Thurmond attended a service at the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston. As the pastor asked everyone around him to hold hands and squeeze tight to "show that you care about the people next to you," Thurmond kept thinking about his arguments to keep the flag.

"I found myself trying to defend it, as everyone does," he said. "How do you defend it? And I just flat out couldn’t."

For lawmakers still wavering between the preservation of heritage and the pain the flag had come to represent, the offer of forgiveness for the suspect, Dylann Roof, from the victims’ families became the turning point.

"I think it just accelerated everyone’s heart to say, ‘Good grief, let’s do everything we can do,’" said Leighton Cubbage, a prominent Republican businessman in South Carolina.

Muted Support

A few days after the Charleston killings, there seemed to be almost no one willing to speak up for the flag.

As demands for its removal multiplied, Paul Finebaum, host of a sports radio show with a loyal following in the Deep South, braced for a torrent of angry callers.

"In most cases like this," Finebaum said, "there’s always been tremendous pushback, and ‘Let’s refight the Civil War.’"

This time, the calls never came.

On social media, even those who gingerly defended the symbol of the Confederacy were immediately swamped by scorn. They were labeled racists or compared to white supremacists and told, in colorful and unmistakable terms, that their views had no place in modern society.

Wes Blackwell, a 21-year-old from Hartsville, South Carolina, who wrote on Twitter that the flag stood for more than racism, was compared to Roof. "I had people call me idiot and moron, all the names in the book," he said in an interview.

With dizzying speed, opponents of the flag blanketed social media. The kind of mass demonstration that, in the past, might have taken a week to organize in front of the State House had coalesced online in several hours, drowning out the flag’s supporters.

Efforts to calm the uproar came in for mockery. On the morning after the killings, Charleston’s mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., declared that the shooter "does not define" the city or South Carolina, prompting Tom Adelsbach to log onto Twitter and fire off a message.

"This flag flies over the SC statehouse, so it kinda does," he wrote, posting a photograph of the Confederate banner on the grounds of the Capitol. His message, retweeted more than 5,000 times, was one of the earliest online posts on the topic to go viral, bringing great satisfaction to Adelsbach, 51, who has loathed the flag since he first saw "The Dukes of Hazzard" on television as a boy.

On Twitter, the debate was not even close. About 77 percent of those mentioning the issue favored the flag’s removal, 20 percent expressed neutrality and 3 percent defended its place on the State House grounds, according to Two.42 solutions, a company that analyzes data and opinion.

A Business Liability

South Carolina’s corporate titans have long held a simple view of the Confederate flag: It was terrible for business. Under Haley, a Republican, the state had devoted itself to luring major companies like Mercedes-Benz and Boeing through big tax incentives and relentless recruitment from the governor. In many ways, the campaign was a success. But the flag, and everything it stood for, always endangered that progress, leading to repeated calls from business groups for its removal.

They were tired of explaining why a symbol of the American Confederacy lingered at the capitol of a state that wanted to lure workers from all over the world. To many of them, it was a source of embarrassment that the NCAA would not pick South Carolina to host championship events because of the flag, and in the college-sports-crazy state, coaches said that it was an obstacle to recruiting.

After the killings in Charleston, the business leaders saw their chance. The chairman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, an old friend and former aide to Haley named Mikee Johnson, polled his 56 board members about the future of the flag. Everyone who responded was of the same opinion. He called Haley and told her: If she was ready to bring down the Confederate banner, they were behind her.

So was the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, the muscular association that represents giant international companies like BMW and Bridgestone Tire. Over the weekend after the shootings, its president, Gossett, urged members to draw up a strategy for finally ridding the State House of the flag.

Inside the governor’s office, pressure was mounting. Haley had vowed not to address the issue until the dead had been properly memorialized. But that restriction soon became untenable, her team realized. The longer she waited, the more it might appear that outsiders had pushed South Carolina into a corner, angering resistant lawmakers whose support she would desperately need to take down the flag.

On the first Saturday after the massacre, shocking new images appeared of Roof with the flag, rattling the governor’s office and indelibly linking the symbol to the tragedy in a way that she could not easily ignore. That evening, she held a conference call with top aides and privately disclosed her decision: The flag must fall. She would make the announcement that Monday.

But first, she had to make sure that her shattered state would come together. On Sunday, her aides began calling lawmakers, NAACP officials and civic leaders, asking them to come on Monday to meet with her at the capitol building, which bears the scars of Union Army artillery strikes from 1865.

The aides refused to tell those coming what the governor’s position was, saying only that there would be an announcement. When they entered her office, she made her pitch to act now.

She had held back a swelling tide of emotion for several days, but it was clear that if nothing happened boycotts and other ugliness could follow. Even the chairman of the Republican National Committee was preparing to issue a statement against the flag, potentially isolating Haley and the state’s other Republican leaders.

At 4 p.m., the governor took the podium. The state’s black U.S. senator, Republican Tim Scott, stood silently beside her.

"A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come," Haley said, handing the task off to the Legislature, which must decide the flag’s fate.

The room erupted into applause. The crowd, including men who as boys had played Army in Confederate hats and women who had defended the emblem for years, seemed ready to give up the fight.

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