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Documentary Explores Why Confederate Flag Flew Above SC State House For So Long

Confederate flag South Carolina statehouse
Jimmy Emerson
The Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in 2007. It was removed in 2015.

In 1961, the dome of the South Carolina State House became home to the Confederate flag, where it flew for nearly 40 years. It moved to the State House grounds in 2000, where it stayed until July of 2015. The impetus for its removal: The tragic shooting that killed nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

"It took my friend's death and eight other people for you to realize that this is something we should have done a long time ago," said South Carolina Sen. Darrell Jackson.

Charlotte filmmaker Scott Galloway is the director of the documentary "Downing of a Flag," which premiered on some PBS stations last week and debuts Thursday night on South Carolina ETV. He talked with WFAE's "All Things Considered" guest host Claire Donnelly.

Claire Donnelly: Scott, what inspired you to make a film about the relationship between South Carolina and the Confederate flag?

Scott Galloway: Well, I was very fortunate in that I was contacted by South Carolina's ETV. And it's a partnership with our company, Susie Films, and Strategic Films which is based in South Carolina. So I'd love to say that I came up with the idea, but frankly, we were asked to come in and produce and direct it. And I thought it was a wonderful opportunity because I think there's so much important history in what happened in South Carolina that not only is related to that state, but I think speaks to the rest of the country.

Donnelly: One thing that sort of struck me watching this documentary and that I think some people might forget or not realize is that the Confederate flag actually was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America, but one of many Confederate battle flags. So can you describe how this flag kind of came to be the primary symbol of the Confederacy and how it came to be part of the South Carolina statehouse?

Galloway: What happened was, and we touched on this in the film as well, when the first flag came out, it looked very similar to the flag of the United States of America, in part because even though the states wanted to secede, they wanted to still have a connection to the United States of America. So on the battlefield, it was kind of hard to tell — "wait, what side are you on?"

And so they went through three different flags. But because they were changing flags, they also created battle flags and the flag associated with Northern Virginia, which was ultimately Robert E. Lee's charge, is the one that is the Confederate battle flag. And that is the one that historically has had the strongest connection with people who are "pro heritage," as they say.

As they were looking to venerate people, the generals — especially Lee — certainly had his shortcomings, but he was a great general. And so there is this kind of lauding of Robert E. Lee, the Northern Virginia camp, and that flag

Speaker in film: After the Civil War, in the South, the generals had a much more venerated place and much more publicly praised place than any of the politicians.

Speaker in film: Robert E. Lee becomes lionized, even though he says, "I don't think monuments are a good idea."

Kay Patterson: General Lee, who who I admire — he's one of the best generals that America ever produced — General Lee told them, furl the flag and put it away.

Donnelly: That was former South Carolina State Sen. Kay Patterson in the documentary on what Lee told other Confederates to do with the flag. So, Scott, after doing all of this research for this documentary, why do you think Confederates never listen to General Lee's instructions?

Galloway: The first generation after the Civil War, there was not a lot of Confederate flag memorabilia (or) regalia out except for in some cemeteries. But in the generation that followed, there was a "lost cause" narrative that was put forth. And that's when the Confederate flag started to appear in public spaces.

The flag over the State House, I thought it went up right after the end of the Civil War, but it did not. It didn't go up until 1961 and it went up as a 100th anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Fort Sumter. Why did that happen? Well, you've got to kind of look at that and what are some of the things that were happening at the same time? There were some civil rights activities going on. And so was this sort of a push back to trying to remember the old way of things? I do think that is—there's a lot of truth to that.

When we did the research on what happened with the flag-raising, there was no fanfare. It wasn't necessarily a big deal. It was only supposed to go up for a day or two. And a state employee, on his own, went up and put the flag up. And we show that -- that just seeing one person do it on, you know, on a Tuesday morning or whatever day of the week it was.

Donnelly: The flag that was on South Carolina's statehouse grounds ultimately came down in 2015, not long after the horrific shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in which nine people were killed. Why did it take that horrific crime to spur the removal of the flag?

Galloway: That's a great question. Ultimately, one of the nine people who was killed was state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. And so immediately in the aftermath, South Carolina senators began drafting a proposal to bring it down. And, you know, you mentioned Sen. Kay Patterson. That's a gentleman who fought for the flag to come down in the '70s, the '80s and the '90s, continued to make the case and chip away at it. And in the year 2000, they had a compromise where they took the flag down off the top of the statehouse. They took it out of the Senate and they took it out of the House and they put it on a flagpole on the grounds.

And so in 2015, they removed it altogether. I think that several things happened. One is the shooter who said that he did so to try and incite a race war. And when he was caught and captured, images came out of Dylann Roof holding the Confederate flag. In my opinion, seeing those images and knowing what he stood for and how he used that flag, I think that ultimately is what brought it down.

Donnelly: What do you think the effects of the flag's removal have been?

Galloway: Part of the question, the answer to having the flag come down, what does it mean, is what does the flag being up mean? And that's a really interesting study in nuance and subtleties, because really, you start to then ask the question, what's the significance of symbolism? The flag still pops up and pops up in unusual places like the Jan. 6 takeover in the Capitol. Or in Charlottesville. And so, why is that?

Donnelly: Thank you, Scott Galloway, for taking a few moments to speak with us about your documentary.

Galloway: Well, thank you. Thanks for your time.

Scott Galloway is the director of "Downing of a Flag," part one of which will air on Thursday, July 22 at 9 p.m. on South Carolina Public Broadcasting stations. It also will be broadcast on Charlotte PBS at midnight on July 23.

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