Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
State legislator Harold Mitchell says he’s happy the flag is falling, but that the politics of its statehouse supporters will continue to affect poor minority communities.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Friday, seven members of South Carolina’s Highway Patrol lowered the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, folded it, and marched it over to Allen Roberson, director of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where the flag will rest. Some of the patrolmen were African Americans, including the patrol officer who marched the folded flag over to Roberson.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law Thursday ordering the Confederate flag removed from state capitol grounds. The bill won final approval in the state legislature on June 9, 147 years to the day on which the state legislature voted to ratify the 14th Amendment extending equal protection under the law to formerly enslaved African Americans. And it comes a little over three weeks since 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof tried to ignite a “race war” by shooting nine African Americans dead during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston.
S.Carolina ratified the 14th Amdt on July 9, 1868, the last state needed for 2/3s. Equal protection became law. pic.twitter.com/ZKDxEuHsQJ— Second Founding (@2ndfounding) July 9, 2015
One of those killed in the massacre, which federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime, was the pastor of that church, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a state senator. In an interview with CityLab, Harold Mitchell, a state representative who was working on a renewable energy bill with Pinckney before his death, compared the deaths to the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 that killed four young African-American girls. Mitchell says the compassion of the surviving family members of the “Emanuel Nine” is what ultimately convinced his fellow state legislators to bring the flag down.
“It was the power of forgiveness,” says Mitchell about the families of the deceased who said they forgave Roof during his court hearing. “[T]hat pierced the heart of a lot of folks that were pretty hard-hearted. We never had an example of evil so evident, where you have someone literally draped in evil who said they wanted to start a race war.”
Not every legislator wanted to bring the Confederate flag down. Twenty state House representatives voted against it, as did three state senators. Among those legislators who fought adamantly and to the very end to keep the Confederate flag up was Lee Bright, who kicked off a senate debate on the flag earlier this week with a diatribe against same-sex marriage.
Bright’s district includes Spartanburg, South Carolina, which Mitchell also represents in the House. The small city has recently been praised for its miraculous turnaround from a place overrun with brownfields, blight, and poverty 20 years ago to a much more vibrant living space today, complete with new healthcare centers and hundreds of new affordable housing units—all of which the local community helped build. The American Planning Association honored Mitchell earlier this year for his leadership in helping foster that turnaround, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chief Gina McCarthy made a pilgrimage to the city in late June to see the change for herself.
She was guided by local elected officials from the area, but Bright wasn’t one of them, despite representing part of the district. According to Mitchell, Bright has been a thorn in the side of any project that has drawn on federal funds. The state refused stimulus recovery funds back in 2009, and as a result many of its roads and highways are in dire need of improvements today. When Mitchell and other legislators proposed raising the state gas tax for road repairs, Bright filibustered to keep it away, jeopardizing Pinckney’s and Mitchell’s renewable energy in the process. Bright abandoned his filibuster only after the state agreed to a bill banning abortions.
It’s obstructions like these from flag supporters such as Bright that Mitchell says black and progressive legislators have to deal with frequently in the state.
“The whole thing with the flag—it’s a racist symbol, and we got it down,” says Mitchell. “My concern, though, is the flag’s agenda: refusing Medicaid expansion, infrastructure improvement, economic development for low-income people—those kinds of things.”