The determined marchers, estimated by police officials at 46,000, wound through the palmetto tree-lined streets chanting, "We're fired up! Take it Down!" and "Hey Hey!, Ho Ho! The racist flag has got to go!"
The crowd filled the park around the state house as marchers overflowed city streets blocks away. It was the largest civil rights march ever in the state, possibly in the South.
The flag was installed there in 1962 by the state legislature as a calculated insult and in defiance of the advancing civil rights movement. The march was one of many across the country commemorating slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. South Carolina is the only state in the nation not to officially recognize the federal holiday.
The mobilization was a crushing answer as well to a rally of 6,000 supporters of the Confederate battle flag that took place on the same spot the week before. In signs, chants, and speeches, marchers answered racist remarks and defense of the flag over the previous week.
Groups of youths chanted and carried signs reading, "Who's Retarded Now!" a reference to comments made by South Carolina State Sen. Arthur Ravenel during the racist rally. Ravenel called the NAACP the "National Association of Retarded People," and added to that insult by issuing an apology to retarded people for "lumping them in with the NAACP."
Such inflammatory rhetoric and symbolism has been the stock and trade of racist supporters of the confederate flag. Their rally, for example, began with a memorial at a confederate cemetery. It included musket fire salutes by civil war re-enactors dressed in Rebel uniforms.
Speaking to that rally, Carolina State Republican Rep. John Altman declared, "If they keep trying to bring it down, they're going to find out why they call it a battle flag." The crossed "Stars and Bars" which flies above the capital was never adopted as the official flag of the confederacy. It was carried by confederate troops in battle.
South Carolina is the only state to fly the confederate battle flag over the state capitol. Several other southern states have incorporated the confederate emblem into their state flag. The NAACP launched an economic boycott of tourism in South Carolina until the flag is removed. The Georgia chapter of Operation Push has announced plans for a similar boycott there demanding the confederate emblems be removed from the state flag.
Most of the largely Black and young marchers came from throughout South Carolina and the surrounding region including Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. Sarah Jackson proudly reported she had come along with four busloads of people from the Baltimore, Maryland, area.
The NAACP organized a number of contingents with large banners. Its president, Kweisi Mfume, was the keynote speaker at the rally. "Bigotry, racism, and racist symbols will not be allowed to go unchallenged," the NAACP leader said. "Racism, sexism, bigotry are wrong! Immigrant bashing is wrong! No lie goes unchallenged forever. We will continue to march and boycott until that flag flies no more," he said to cheers from the crowd.
Many working people had taken the day off for the march. The flag is "coming down!" Clarence Kinloch a steelworker at Georgetown Steel in nearby Georgetown, South Carolina, confidently explained. "I had to be here to let them know that." Kinloch, a veteran of civil rights struggles in the area, pointed out, "There hasn't been a protest like this in this city. They can't stand up to us now. All that's left is for those bigots in the state house to figure out a way to take it down without losing face."
Kinloch also raises goats, chickens, ducks, and geese on his 15-acre farm. He recounted how segregationists in charge of local Department of Agriculture offices would use default on taxes to take away Black farmers' land. "We fought that and got it changed and we will bring down that flag," he added.
Marcus Ashford from here in Columbia works at Michelin Tire. He went to Continental General Tire when the company put ads in the paper for hiring. When he got there and saw picket lines of steelworkers on strike, he turned around and went home.
"I came to be part of this monumental event," he said. "The flag should come down. These kinds of numbers is the best way to get our views out."
Bryant Gary came from Aiken, South Carolina, in a 40-vehicle caravan, including a bus from his church. "The NAACP in Columbia called all the area churches asking those who had buses to organize to bring people to this march. So we're here."
The debate over removing the racist symbol spilled over into the presidential candidates' debates. Republican front-runner George W. Bush has refused to condemn the flying of the confederate battle flag saying it is an issue to be decided by South Carolinians. He has also declined to condemn Ravenel's remarks, calling them simply "unfortunate."
When Republican candidate Alan Keyes, who is Black, demanded the Republican party take its distance from Ravenel, Bush backpedaled, stating, "His comments are out of line and we should repudiate them."
During an appearance on the CBS program "Face the Nation," McCain called the confederate flag "offensive" and "a symbol of racism and slavery," but added that he understood how others see it differently. He followed that statement up with a written clarification: "Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage," it read in part.
Several groups of young whites and Blacks at the march carried signs reading, "Not My Heritage!" and "Your Heritage is My Slavery!"
Stephen Williams, Rusty Jones, and Will Grice—all 18-year-olds—are students at nearby University of South Carolina and came to the rally together. Each of them is white.
"We're not with any group, we just decided to come," explained Jones. "That flag is the past. It's not who we are!" "It's a flag of traitors!," added Grice. They nodded agreement with Williams who said, "It's not just offensive to Blacks. Its offensive when they say it's part of my heritage. That flag doesn't stand for me!"
In response to the march, Governor Jim Hodges, who told the local press he did not participate because he needed neutrality to negotiate a compromise, said the size of the action "creates a sense of urgency to get this issue resolved."
One compromise floated this past week was by conservative columnist George Will, who proposed the flag be "moved to a Confederate monument not yet built on the capitol grounds and the governor would press to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday."
Responding the this proposal, right-wing columnist Samuel Francis condemned this as "surrendering on the flag" and urged "South Carolinians" to "do whatever it takes to keep the identity and the heritage their Confederate flag symbolizes."
University of South Carolina student Nicole Thompson said, "I've lived here all my life. The flag has been there all my life. It's time for it to come down. That flag represents rape, murder, and terror. That's not the distant past. It's recent history."
Pointing to the capitol dome, Nancy Clifton, from here, said, "My great-grandfather carried the stones that built that structure. I'm here in his memory. It [the flag] was put up there 100 years after the civil war as a statement to Blacks that it still wasn't over. For that reason it needs to come down."
Sam Manuel is a freight railroad conductor and member of the United Transportation Union in Washington, D.C. Floyd Fowler from Atlanta, Bernie Senter from San Francisco, and Greg McCartan from Boston contributed to this article.
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