COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A. Mason Gibbes knows well the potency of the Confederacy for South Carolinians. His granddaddy fired the signal shot in 1861 that began the bombardment of Fort Sumter and plunged the nation into civil war. But this 85-year-old son of the South also believes that the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome is long overdue.
Flying over the Capitol since the 1961 centennial of the War Between the States, the battle flag is at the center of a nasty public debate here over symbols of sovereignty, racial intolerance, cultural heritage and legislative imperative.
The debate intensified with a call by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for vacationers, conventions, corporations, associations and others to take their business elsewhere until the flag comes down.
Tomorrow, NAACP leaders, religious groups, college students, community activists and others will rally at the Statehouse for the removal of the Confederate battle flag. Mason Gibbes, the grandson of Maj. Wade Hampton Gibbes Sr., will be there in spirit, if not in person.
"I don't think the Confederate flag has any business over the Statehouse now," said Gibbes, a retired businessman who, in a Christmas card five years ago, proposed to then-Gov. Carroll Campbell that the flag be removed. "The Statehouse was there without the flag for so many years. It's just been a ridiculous thing to have kept it up there."
But others view the challenge to the flag as an assault on Southern heritage.
"I've always said it's not about the location of the flag; it's the flag itself," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, a student of what is known in Southern parlance as the War of Northern Aggression.
The flag, a star-studded blue X on a red background, led columns of Confederate soldiers across the battlefields of the South. Their descendants displayed it at parades and ceremonies. Daughters of the Confederacy gave the flag as gifts to their husbands. The Ku Klux Klan claimed the banner for its own menacing uses during the civil rights movement.
African-Americans, who constitute a third of South Carolina's 3.8 million residents, say the flag has no place at the seat of government in the Palmetto State. The more outspoken have called it a red rag, an odious symbol of racism. Others say simply it doesn't represent them.
Defenders of the flag contend that it is neither a symbol of slavery nor an affront to civil rights.
'A soldier's flag'
"It is a soldier's flag," said McConnell, a former Legal Aid lawyer whose legislative office is decorated with paintings of Civil War scenes. "It is not a political flag."
The issue of removing the flag from the Statehouse has been raised over the years but not resolved. It flies below the American flag and the state flag, which features a palmetto tree. It went up at a time when only white lawmakers served in the Statehouse and during the contentious civil rights fight.
The last governor who proposed relocating it lost his bid for re-election.
A group of Columbia businessmen filed a court challenge to the flag's Statehouse display in the late 1990s. But state lawmakers, recognizing the political power of the battle flag, passed legislation giving them sole authority over the flag's fate.
"Ever since the Civil War, the descendants of the white owners have controlled what the symbols are, the state songs, flags," said Edwin L. Ayers, a Southern historian at the University of Virginia. "People who have always resented that being presented as what the South is are now fighting back."
The flag issue resurfaced last summer when the national board of the Baltimore-based NAACP voted to initiate economic sanctions Jan. 1 if the Confederate banner was not removed. But the legislature, the only group that has power over the flag, wasn't to reconvene until last Tuesday. So they returned for the start of their legislative session in a fit of pique, with the NAACP sanctions under way.
House Speaker Pro Tem Terry E. Haskins called the NAACP's actions a "bogus" way to boost membership and donations.
Haskins, a Michigan native who says he has fought to keep affirmative action alive in the state, said the NAACP did little several years ago when then-Gov. David Beasley and he proposed relocating the flag.
"I am not going to move to bring that flag down as long as I am under threats," said the 44-year-old lawyer from Greenville. "That's bad public policy. The integrity of the General Assembly of South Carolina is more important than where a piece of cloth flies."
But Lonnie Randolph Jr., a Columbia leader of the NAACP, asked: "There were no sanctions for the last 38 years and there was no resolution to this issue. Do you think sanctions are the problem?"
The issue has pitted Civil War enthusiasts against civil rights activists, sons of the Confederacy against descendants of slaves. It has engaged veteran politicians and political neophytes, business leaders and barbers, university officials and stay-at-home mothers.
And it's been an issue for Republican candidates competing in the state's Feb. 19 presidential primary. George W. Bush won applause when he said South Carolinians can decide the issue for themselves. John McCain also says it's up to the citizens, and while he sees how the flag could offend, he also understands its historical significance.
Presenting 'true history'
Danny Verdin joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans when he was 12. Today, at 35, the garden store owner is president of the group's South Carolina chapter. Ask him his stand on the flag, and he recites the organization's oath: "The defense of the Confederate soldier's good name, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles for which he fought and which he loved and which made him glorious.
"Remember it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations."
Ask Verdin if the Confederate sons will compromise and the answer is no. "Period," he said. "The Sons of Confederate Veterans have no compromise position. We are unequivocal in our support of the flag's current status atop the dome."
A proposal to move the flag to a Confederate memorial on the front lawn of the Statehouse grounds has been rejected by the NAACP and black legislators. Verdin and other flag supporters view the NAACP fight as the first salvo in a national campaign to remove all Confederate monuments and heritage symbols from public property.
They note objections raised over the playing of "Dixie" here and in Georgia, the protests filed against the Confederate Sons license plates in Maryland and attacks on murals of Robert E. Lee in Virginia.
'Stools of repentance'
"Southerners have no reason to sit on everlasting stools of repentance," said Verdin. "South Carolinians love their liberty, love their independence and don't appreciate having a gun held to their head, especially by outsiders."
William C. Hubbard, the chairman of the board of trustees of the University of South Carolina, is just as impassioned about the need to resolve the dispute quickly. He said the presence of the flag is affecting the university's ability to recruit top faculty and students.
"The flag has simply become a divisive issue in this state, and the debate over the flag distracts from the good people in this state who are actually working every day to make progress for all South Carolinians," Hubbard said. "It serves no useful purpose to divide the people of South Carolina in this fashion."
The controversy and the NAACP sanctions have affected the state's $14 billion tourism industry and its business climate. An average of 2.1 million black tourists visit South Carolina and spend about $280 million annually.
At least 91 groups -- including family reunions -- have canceled meetings or conventions in the state since the summer, according to the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, the trade group for the state's hotels and restaurants.
But the financial impact of the flag dispute isn't what marks the issue. It is the extent to which the Civil War informs South Carolinians' thoughts and experience. Some 20,000 South Carolinians died in the war; that figure is repeated as often as the fact that the state was the first to secede.
Questions of image
The flag issue rouses strong patriotic feelings; it also recalls the disparity between the lives of black and white South Carolinians. That the state still flies the flag raises concerns about the state's image at the close of the 20th century, some say.
In addition to the war's emotional legacy are the physical reminders.
Five bronze stars mark the spots on the South Carolina Statehouse hit by shells from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's cannon. No one is talking about removing them.
"The NAACP has to recognize that for many Southerners, particularly Southerners who have direct lineage to soldiers who fought and died for the Confederacy they feel that the state Capitol that was shelled by Sherman is the most appropriate monument to respect our ancestors," said Haskins, the speaker pro tem.
While eating fried fish and oxtails at Bert's Restaurant in the black neighborhood of Waverly in Columbia, Louis Corbett and Solomon Murray, both African-American, pondered the fate of the Confederate battle flag. The suggestion that South Carolina lawmakers would consider removing the flag if the NAACP ended its sanctions campaign offended Corbett.
"That's an insult to our intelligence," said the 26-year-old engineer.
"Put it in a museum with every other artifact," Murray, a 25-year-old barber, said of the flag.
But a comment from a nearby patron articulated an unspoken anxiety.
'Keep us in our place'
"Wherever that flag stands it's still going to be in people's hearts," said the woman. "They're going to feel whatever they're going to feel. We have so many issues at hand -- drugs, teen pregnancy, foster care [that should be dealt with]. You know why that flag is up there? To keep us in our place."
Tomorrow, Jesse Washington Jr. will join the thousands expected to march on the Statehouse in support of removing the Confederate battle flag. The rally is being held on the day set aside as the federal holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. South Carolina has yet to mark the day.
Washington, the executive director of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, has worked for the past 20 years to bridge what he calls the great divide between black and white South Carolinians.
He said he hopes tomorrow's rally will end with an exhortation as stirring as King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 march on Washington.
"That speech was and is an eloquent appeal to the soul of America," said Washington, 53. "That speech did not divide us. It pulled us together."