Even the tall, graceful palmetto trees that ring the grounds of the South Carolina capitol looked on television like they were sweating, and not just from the midlands heat.
A few minutes before 10 a.m. last Friday, up to 10,000 people ringed the capitol grounds under the shade of the palmettos in downtown Columbia and waited for an extraordinary event in Southern political history. A biracial honor guard of South Carolina state troopers stood at parade-deck attention waiting to haul down the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds for the first time in more than 50 years. The day before, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill passed overwhelmingly by the legislature to take down the flag
South Carolina started the Civil War when it tried to secede from the Union and fired the first shots of the war, on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In 1961, to mark the war’s centennial, and stick a finger in the eye of the civil rights movement, the state hoisted the Confederate flag over the capitol dome, and it flew there until 2000, when it was moved to a spot in front of the capitol.
But last Friday, at 10:09 a.m., 150 years after the end of the Civil War, it came down. Fittingly, after it was brought down, folded, rolled and tied up, a black trooper led the honor guard in a precision march over to a museum curator and handed the flag to him. The curator slipped into a side door and carried the banner into history.
The battle flag, which flew in defiance of equal rights for blacks, which supported an army that fought for a government that supported slavery, had been laid to rest in the Palmetto State, at least on government property.
The palmetto adorns the South Carolina state flag, and palmettos are everywhere in South Carolina. They are a subtle reminder, as you enter the state, that South Carolina is geographically different – a state that in many places is a summer paradise, or a cauldron as the case may be.
“You are going to the hottest place on earth,” a gas station attendant told me one summer afternoon years ago as I was headed to Columbia to visit my college roommate.
The rhetoric in South Carolina has always been hot too, from the debates over secession in 1861 to the recent debate about the flag. In 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, acting in defense of slavery, caned another member of Congress into un-consciousness on the Senate floor. In 2009, another congressman, Joe Wilson, stood up on the House floor in the middle of a speech by the president of the United States and yelled, “You lie!”
The old saying goes that South Carolina is too small to be a banana republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.
South Carolina is different, but also magnificent. It may be hot, but it is a gorgeous land-scape of green from the foothills near Greenville in the north through the river valley that leads down to Columbia and all the way to the coast and that jewel of a city, Charleston. Anyone who has stood in the salt-air breeze at sunset on the battery in Charleston, along the riverfront in Beaufort, or on the beach at Sullivan’s Island knows this undeniable fact. The state has also produced the brilliant writer Pat Conroy, among others.
But the state was never more beautiful than on Friday. Gov. Haley stood on the steps surrounded by other dignitaries and public officials of good will and faith, black and white, and watched the scene unfold. She said nothing, and nothing need be said. She had said it all the day before when she signed the bill. Flanked by past governors and officials of both political parties, Haley said that taking down the flag was a credit to the love and compassion shown by the families of the nine churchgoers who were shot to death in Charleston last month.
“It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state," she said.
Haley, young, urbane and attractive, is a national political star in the making. She rose to the occasion following the senseless Charleston shootings. She grew up in South Carolina after her parents moved there from India. Neither whites nor blacks in her small town knew what to make of her when she tried to enter a local beauty pageant that awarded a crown to one white girl and one black girl, so she was disqualified from the pageant.
It is telling, and a credit to the modern South Carolina, that she was at the helm when the flag came down. She led South Carolina into history once again, this time on the side of American values that unite us all.
Chris Geis is a local lawyer who holds the rank of commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.