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Palmetto Pride: South Carolina State Flag Sparks Debate

South Carolina Flag Study Committee
This recommended redesign of South Carolina's flag prompted backlash in December. The tree “looks like (it's) been through hurricane Hugo!” one person wrote on Twitter.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina senators may soon take up one of the most divisive issues to hit the state in years: standardizing the state flag's iconic palmetto tree and crescent design.

The flag hoisted daily over the Statehouse looks different than those hanging in the House and Senate chambers and the governor’s office because the Legislature has never put in to law how the banner should look.

In 2018, lawmakers created a committee of historians who meticulously studied South Carolina flags back to before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed and pulled the earliest designs of the palmetto tree, the crescent and the shade of blue to create the most historically accurate flag possible.

After two years of study, they released a design, and shortly after Christmas, The Post and Courier of Charleston wrote a story about it. The public revolted, especially at the palmetto tree that was far from robust. Historically accurate didn't fly on social media.

The tree “looks like (its) been through hurricane Hugo!” one person wrote on Twitter. The sparse branches briefly became a meme about surviving 2020.

“That probably is the best symbol to accurately depict the history of the state flag. It just won’t sell to the public,” said state Sen. Ronnie Cromer.

The committee went back and pulled some more contemporary 20th century designs that were still linked to official uses. A Senate subcommittee approved two designs Tuesday — one with a symmetrical tree and one of a tree with a more natural but still hearty look — and sent them on to the full Family and Veterans Services Committee.

“That way more people can be presented with the blame,” joked Cromer, a Republican from Prosperity.

It was a walk around the Statehouse that started the whole debate. Several years ago, political consultant Scott Malyerck noticed the state flag that flew atop the Capitol wasn’t the same as the one standing in the governor’s office.

Malyerck conducted some research and found out there is no standard state flag. The indigo blue shade differs. Some have symmetrical palmetto trees and others are more natural looking. The details were often decided by which flag maker offered the lowest price to the state.

“The tree means something. The crescent means something. The blue means something. I thought it was kind of careless to leave it to the low bidder,” Malyerck said.

All that symbolism goes back to the Revolutionary War, when Col. William Moultrie’s 2nd South Carolina Regiment repelled the first attempt by the British to take Charleston — then called Charlestown — in the 1776 Battle of Sullivan's Island.

The crescent (true Palmetto State flag aficionados know it's not a moon) was worn by Moultrie's soldiers. The shade of indigo — a critical crop to South Carolina 250 years ago — matched their uniforms. And the palmetto tree honored the material that soldiers used to hastily construct a fort. British cannonballs bounced off the trees' spongy bark and the invaders couldn't get onshore.

The backlash against the original design surprised Malyerck and the committee. But they listened and came up with what they think are two more popular designs.

Malyerck also understands the draw of the palmetto tree and crescent, an image that in the past 20 years has cropped up everywhere in the state. Former Gov. Nikki Haley almost always wears a necklace with it. Marketing surveys show the popularity is only eclipsed by Texas' lone star design. To appear before the committee Tuesday, Malyerck pulled out a tie with the design he bought two decades ago.

“We don’t want to dramatically alter it. We just want to make it uniform," Malyerck said of the state flag. "We've gotten in the weeds a little bit. But you have to, I guess.”