WALHALLA — In the aftermath of the racially motivated Charleston church slayings in 2015, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina Statehouse during an elaborate nationally televised ceremony.
But in less prominent places, the fight over the flag rages on, with the rebel banner garnering at least two recent victories. That’s because a South Carolina law crafted more than 15 years ago requires the Legislature to approve by at least a two-thirds vote any change to a historical monument such as lowering a flag or adding a name. And one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers has vowed the law will not change.
Twice in the last month, Confederate flag supporters cited the law as they forced the banner to return to a Confederate monument and a newly renovated courtroom in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the Blue Ridge Mountain gateway town of Walhalla, Luther Lyle, a descendent of Confederate soldiers and former caretaker of a Civil War monument there, had lowered the flag following the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Lyle said he did so out of respect for the victims.
Lyle did not make the decision to lower the flag lightly.
His great-grandfather and a great-great grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War, and he was the one who originally put the Confederate flag on the Walhalla monument in 2000.
At the time, legislators passed the South Carolina Heritage Act, which removed the Confederate flag from the top of the Statehouse dome and put it at a soldier’s monument in front of the building.
Flag supporters called it a compromise. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said it was still a prominent display of the state’s racist past, and it led a boycott of South Carolina.
The Heritage Act also created the required the two-thirds vote for any change to a monument. One of the few times lawmakers changed a monument was when they added the name of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter to his statue in 2004.
The law is so far-reaching that a group in Greenwood has sued, saying they have been unable to change plaques on a war monument that separates soldiers killed into “colored” and “white” categories. The group believes the monument is a relic of the South’s scarred past and should be changed in the spirit of equality with the old plaques put in a museum. Others say it should serve as a reminder of the once-segregated U.S. military. Arguments in the lawsuit are expected next month.
Last year, House Speaker Jay Lucas said he would not allow any exceptions or changes to the Heritage Act to come up for consideration. The Republican has not responded to an email about whether his stance has changed and has shown no sign he thinks differently today. Republicans in the House have been in lockstep behind him.
Some Confederate flag supporters believe the law should be strengthened, noting that it has no penalties for people who make changes to monuments.
“The Heritage Act has no teeth,” said James Bessenger of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, whose group recently forced the flag to be restored at the Walhalla monument.
After the church slayings, Lyle did some research and said he discovered that more Civil War soldiers in South Carolina fought under flags with some variant of a Palmetto tree (like the state flag) compared with banners with some version of a Confederate flag.
He was ready to fight the Confederate group until a friend pointed out that, even if he won, it would probably require a long and costly legal battle.
“I’d rather spend that money on my grandkids,” the 69-year-old retired teacher said.
So earlier this month, Lyle lowered the South Carolina flag and raised a Confederate one. He also turned over care of the monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter where he is a member.
In York County, the flag and portraits of Confederate generals were removed during renovations of a century-old courtroom.
Clerk David Hamilton confidently said he was removing the items so all people would be comfortable in a courtroom where justice should be equal to all. Yet less than a week later, he said the Heritage Act left him no choice but to change his stance.
Rep. Joe Neal, just days before he died unexpectedly, said he thought the law was overused.
“Every time somebody puts up an ode to the Confederacy, that does not automatically fall under the protection of the Heritage Act,” the black Democrat said.