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Why the Confederate flag still flies in South Carolina

Story highlights

  • There is outrage over a mass shooting, but the Confederate flag still flies
  • Many want the flag banished from the state capitol
  • But the law makes it a difficult thing to change

(CNN)Even in the wake of overwhelming sadness, even amid charges of horrific crimes, there it was: the Confederate flag flying high above the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.

Outrageous. Unthinkable. Cruel. Those were the kinds of words being thrown around by people still hurting deeply from what authorities say was a racially motivated slaughter inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
    "This was an act of racial terrorism," the president of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks, shouted in Charleston. "That symbol has to come down!"
    The fury might have arisen anyway, but it has been whipped to a fever pitch by the fact that while U.S. flags have been lowered, the Confederate battle flag remains high -- even padlocked into place.
    Why?
    It is a matter of state law.
    Back in 2000, civil rights activists successfully lobbied to have a much larger Confederate flag removed from the Capitol dome. But there was a compromise. The South Carolina Heritage Act decreed that just about all other tributes to Confederate history would be virtually untouchable. The only way to change anything of that nature -- including the smaller flag that was erected on the State House lawn -- would be to gain the endorsement of two-thirds of lawmakers.
    That's not likely here or in any other place where some have said for years that the flag is not about racism; it is about Southern pride and heritage.
    Even the height of the rebel flag at the state Capitol is mandated in the law -- 30 feet. Not only that, but that flagpole lacks a pulley system, meaning that unless lawmakers vote to take it down, there is only one other position it can fly: all the way up.
    Lowering the Confederate flag to half-staff wouldn't have pleased civil rights leaders, anyway.
    "We cannot have the Confederate flag waving on the grounds of the state Capitol," Brooks said.
    In an interview on CNN later in the day, Brooks added that the flag not only "represents bias (and) bigotry," but alienates large swaths of the state's population, which is about 28% black.
    "We're proud of who we are and where we're from," a pro-Confederate flag protester in Georgia said a few years back, and such sentiments can be readily found anywhere, anytime throughout the South.
    Rebel flags fly from dorm room windows, splay across the tailgates of pickups, and spread over the sand in the form of beach towels. In Mississippi, the Confederate flag is part of the official state flag.
    And to be sure, there are plenty of Southerners who see the flag as nothing more than an emblem of regional pride; the same way someone from New England might drape a "Don't Tread on Me" flag over a balcony.
    Interestingly, the original design for a Confederate flag was very much like the U.S. flag. After all, Southerners believed they were the true defenders of the ideals that had fostered the American Revolution.
    But the similarity of the first Confederate flag to the Union banner was confusing on the battlefield, so changes followed. What we call the Confederate flag today is an amalgam of several designs and was never the official banner of the whole South.

    "What do we want? The flag down! When do we want it? Now!" #Charleston #charlestonshooting #CNN

    A photo posted by Catherine Shoichet (@catherinecnn) on

    Still, none of that persuades critics to accept the argument that this is all about history. Actor Wendell Pierce, best known for his role on The Wire, tweeted: "The Nazis are responsible for the Autobahn & advancing rocket science. Do we fly the Nazi flag to remember that 'heritage?'"
    It is an old debate, but even top politicians admit it has new resonance following the Charleston killings.
    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said, "I think the state will start talking about that again. We'll see where it goes."
    And Republican presidential contender, Sen. Lindsey Graham said of his home state, "At the end of the day, it's time for people in South Carolina to revisit that."
    Black lawmakers in the Palmetto State are vowing to reintroduce legislation to remove the flag from the capital grounds, and perhaps from every official setting. Legislative history suggests their chances for passage are slim.
    At the White House, officials say President Obama's take on the issue is unchanged: The Confederate flag has a place in America. And that place is in museums.
    Maybe times have changed. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court said Texas can deny requests for license plates featuring the Confederate flag. But nine other states still allow it on their plates, including South Carolina.
    So perhaps it is no wonder opponents are coming off the backside of this tragedy not merely railing against what they see as a banner of bigotry, but pushing a symbol of their own -- storming the Internet to post time and again #takeitdownsc.