COLUMBIA, S.C. State Rep. Bob Sheheen took one look at the crowded elevator.
The Democrat, on his way to the first House session to consider the fate of the Confederate flag, backed off.
“Too many Republicans,” he said.
Such polarization aside, the South Carolina House has enough Republicans to kill any plan to remove the flag from the Statehouse dome.
The final showdown in the debate over where to put that flag began yesterday in an event marked by Southern patriots toting the battle flag and a host of attempts to temper a Senate-approved compromise bill.
“Here it is, on full boil for everybody to see,” said Rep. Bill Cotty, a white Republican.
A compromise that would move the flag to a memorial to the state’s Confederate soldiers already has won the approval of the state Senate. Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, has said he would sign that bill.
The Confederate battle flag now rustles at the top of the Statehouse dome, just beneath the state flag and the U.S. banner.
“We have regressed from where we were 10 years ago,” Mr. Sheheen said as he proposed an amended version of the Senate bill one of 57 that were proposed and mostly mowed down yesterday by the Republican-majority House.
The changes ranged from complete removal of all flags to a healing pool to Mr. Sheheen’s bronze plaque concept, which would substitute a monument for the flag.
Pro-flag activists have become a fixture at the Statehouse during the dispute. Some simply don hats emblazoned with the battle flag; others parade around the grounds waving the banner.
Some do both.
“If they want to take that flag down, they might as well remove the other two as well,” said Bob Mixson, 60, from Charleston. He wore a blue hat read “Keep It Flyin’ ” as he hefted a 5-foot-tall wooden staff. The flag that dangled from it, he said, was purchased at a local store.
For 73 cents, you can buy a 3-by-3-inch plastic version at Cromers, a two-minute walk from the Statehouse.
Assistant manager Warren Davis said he simply puts up with those who buy it.
“You know, there are certain kind of people who buy them,” said Mr. Davis, who is black. He paused, then whispered, “you know racists.”
But the flag conjures ugly memories to some, especially blacks.
“The flag makes a mockery of my liberty,” said one black man outside the Capitol yesterday, who said his name was Rev. E. Slave.
Adoption by the Republican-controlled House was far from certain, even though the Republican leadership has endorsed the plan. A final vote is not expected until later this week.
“I think everybody is in favor of some kind of compromise,” said Rep. Charles Sharpe, who came to yesterday’s session wearing a silk tie emblazoned with the controversial banner.
Mr. Sharpe said he won’t vote for the bill before him as it now stands. He wants to make sure all the amendments, from the mundane to the meaningful, get his scrutiny.
“I’ll have to take a long look at all the garbage before I approve anything,” he said.
Nothing short of the original plan stuck. The only amendment to pass raised the flagpole to 30 feet from 20.
If the bill gets through the Republican-dominated House, the rectangular Confederate flag would be removed. A smaller, square version would be placed on a 30-foot flagpole adjacent to a 38-foot-high memorial to the state’s Confederate soldiers at the front of the Capitol.
Presentations given yesterday in the House leaned heavily on ancestry and tradition. Some black lawmakers told of their younger days growing up in a divided South, while white lawmakers touted their lineage as proud warriors who fought against the Union.
Some blacks believe the flag is an irredeemable symbol of racism and slavery and oppose even the idea of moving it to the memorial.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called an economic boycott of the state that began Jan. 1 and has said the Senate bill doesn’t do enough to end the strike.
Some black Democrats also say the flag would be too visible at the monument, which is near one of Columbia’s busiest intersections.
“I’d rather it stay on the dome than fly on the ground in people’s faces and create the total chaos that I know it’s going to create,” said Rep. John Scott.
Confederate flag fatigue has deflated the morale of many people in the state.
“It’s all you hear about when people talk about this state,” said one woman, who did not want to be identified. She moved to the state several years ago from the North.
She is part of the New South, a newly moneyed group of transplants who feel that living in the only state to fly the Confederate flag atop its Capitol is almost uncivilized.
“We were condemning the flag before it was even cool,” said Preston McLaurin, a spokesman for the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been calling for the flag to come down since 1996. It has historic significance, but it’s not a sovereign flag.”
But this is still the South; the lilting “Thank yews” purr from the lips of hard-working waitresses at the Waffle House, and the Marshall Tucker Band no stranger to flying the banner still plays at the city’s annual street fair.
The issue has burned ever since the flag was unfurled in 1962 as part of a celebration of the Civil War centennial.
There were major political disputes in 1983, 1994 and 1997 before the NAACP launched the current debate by calling for a boycott of South Carolina.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.