BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Early Thursday morning, after 13 hours of debate in the South Carolina House of Representatives, what many had considered unthinkable occurred: South Carolina’s government voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds at the state’s capitol, Columbia.
In the wake of the June 17 mass shooting that left nine black Charleston church members dead, there were immediate, widespread cries to remove the flag. The shooter had posted photos of himself with the rebel standard beforehand on a racist Web site.
The South Carolina state Senate on Monday had voted to bag the flag but, but the House had yet to weigh in. Governor Nikki Haley had also come out in favor of canning the banner.
Photojournalist John Penley, a former longtime East Village resident and activist who a few years ago returned to live in his home state of North Carolina, covered the story leading up to Thursday’s historic vote. On July 4, he photographed a “Take Down the Flag” rally at Columbia.
One of his photos shows a man being arrested by a group of state troopers; the man had burned a small paper Confederate flag on State House grounds.
“You can’t burn anything there, but you can smoke a cigarette,” Penley said, adding that some folks are considering returning and smoking cigarettes made of Confederate flag rolling paper.
“I’ll be back there on the 18th when the Klan shows up,” Penley told The Villager. “It should be crazy. That’s the North Carolina Klan. They’re the most active Klan in the country right now.
Even though the flag is coming down — it will be removed on Friday morning — Penley said he now expects that even more Ku Klux Klan members will show up. But they won’t be able to wear their hoods on State House grounds, since it too is banned, he noted, or risk facing a $500 fine.
“There’s a big debate going on,” he said. “The old-school protesters want to leave them alone. But these anarchists and young radicals are saying physically confront them, bust heads. Others are saying just ignore them — that attention is what they want, and don’t give them any.
“Myself, I’m not giving a public position. I’m just going to take pictures.”
He also isn’t eager to risk the chance of getting arrested and going back to jail. Penley, now 63, served a year in prison after a 1982 protest in which he tried to enter the administrative building at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant.
Penley is, however, urging people to fight back — through costumes.
“I’m encouraging people to dress up as clowns — like a rainbow-colored Klan outfit,” he explained. “If you can get in there and get in photos with them, it really destroys what they’re trying to project. They’ve done this against neo-Nazis in Europe, and it really works.”
As for whether there will be a clash, Penley said the Klan will have law officers guarding them since they have a permit.
“They’re going to have a lot of protection,” he said.
While some defend the Confederate flag as merely the symbol of Dixie, its critics say it represents nothing less than white supremacy and hate. The flag was first flown on the capitol’s dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and also as a defiant statement against the civil rights movement. It was later moved off the dome and onto its own flagpole on the State House grounds.
A week before the Columbia anti-flag demonstration that Penley covered, on Sat., June 27, Brittany “Bree” Newsome shimmied up the 30-foot-tall pole outside the State House and removed the Confederate flag just hours before a pro-flag rally. She was arrested for defacing a monument.
There is also a growing movement to remove Southern monuments to Confederate and racist figures — such as the one to Benjamin Tillman, a former South Carolina governor and senator, at Columbia. After the Charleston shooting, the statue was defaced by someone who shot red paint balls at it, but it has since been cleaned up.
“The guy’s notorious for being an out-and-out racist…KKK, lynchings,” Penley said of Tillman.
Among the Reconstruction-era politician’s infamous quotes is “Black men must learn to be subservient or be exterminated.”
In 1991, Penley covered a cross burning in Tennessee at the National Klan Convention.
“They’re doing a cross burning here on some guy’s farm on Saturday night after the Klan rally,” he said. “I’m going to try to photograph that. It’s invitation only.
“They call it a ‘cross lighting.’ They don’t like to call it a burning,” he noted. “To them, it’s like a religious ceremony.”
But the Klan will need a permit for that, he noted, speculating that they will get it since the event is slated to happen on private property.
Ratcheting up the pressure to remove the incendiary symbol, on Tuesday, MoveOn.org had delivered more than half a million petitions to the South Carolina State House calling for the slavery-linked standard to be struck from all government places.
At the same time, two South Carolina legislators stepped outside to stand with several men waving Confederate flag at a counterdemonstration. One member of the group held a rebel flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate” added onto it. The back of another man’s T-shirt showed the inflammatory image of the blue cross on red background framed by the words “Raise It High Southern Pride.”
The House’s vote early Thursday by 93-27 to pull down the infamous fabric rectangle came quickly and took Penley by surprise. Speaking on Tuesday, he said there was no way of telling how the vote would go.
“And South Carolina politicians are already talking about putting up a new memorial with the Confederate flag on it and the names of South Carolina Confederate soldiers on it which would be bigger and more visible than what they already have there,” he said. “It’s getting crazy down here.
“The Civil War never stopped,” the former Alphabet City activist reflected. “We’re still fighting it. Look at what happened in Charleston. Look at what’s going on with the flag.”