South Carolina flag debate sharpens as mourners stream to capitol grounds – Washington Post

Thousands of mourners gathered at the South Carolina statehouse Wednesday to say goodbye to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the state senator gunned down along with eight other people inside his historic Charleston church last week.

On the quiet second floor of the capitol building where Pinckney’s body lay in state, mourners slowly approached the open casket, some openly weeping over the life cut short in a church basement.

“If there ever was a Martin Luther King the second, it was him,” Jeane Cummings-Walker, 65, said as she sat quietly on a bench after viewing the body. “There’s almost no words to describe all that he did.”

Outside, many fanned themselves as they waited, some for more than an hour, in the sweltering 90-degree heat. All the while, the Confederate flag that inspired Pinckney’s alleged killer and sparked so much anger in recent days flapped overhead, flying high from a flagpole on the capitol grounds.

“It is too bad that someone had to lose their lives in order for them to take that flag down,” said Annie Canty, 83, of Sumter, S.C. “It’s too bad that lives had to be lost to get the attention of the people.”

A day earlier, Pinckney’s former colleagues in the state legislature had agreed to begin debating removal of the flag. But what began as a discussion about a single banner has erupted into a national movement to eliminate Confederate imagery — from flags, license plates, clothing and elsewhere — sweeping up major retailers and prominent politicians with remarkable speed.

The momentum continued to build Wednesday, stretching to the capital of Alabama. While legislators in South Carolina have talked about getting the flag down by next month, a flag on the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, Ala., was pulled down Wednesday morning.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) ordered the flag at a Confederate memorial taken down, along with three other Civil War-era flags. Bentley did this to remove “a distraction from other state issues,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators said Wednesday that their state flag — the last in the country bearing a Confederate emblem — should be redesigned to eliminate the symbol. These statements came two days after the Republican speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives issued a similar call.

“After reflection and prayer, I now believe our state flag should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R) said in a statement.

Wicker, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm for Senate races, and his Mississippi colleague, Sen. Thad Cochran (R), joined a growing bandwagon of people and companies that have spoken out against Confederate imagery since the shooting in Charleston last Wednesday.

The accused gunman, Dylann Roof, 21, left behind a Web site explaining the racist roots of the shooting that was illustrated with photos of himself posing with the Confederate flag and other Confederate images.

On Wednesday, a law enforcement official said the federal government is likely to bring hate-crime charges against Roof. The likelihood of these charges was first reported by the New York Times.

The Justice Department declined to comment Wednesday on possible hate-crime charges against Roof, saying its investigation is ongoing. Officials pointed to an earlier statement saying that federal authorities were “looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.”

Eric H. Holder Jr., who earlier this year stepped down as attorney general, tweeted that based on the law and what was released so far, the shooting was a “hate crime and act of terrorism.”

So far, Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder. He remains in a Charleston County detention center, where he is being held in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, James B. Gosnell Jr., the judge who oversaw Roof’s first, largely symbolic court appearance, was removed Wednesday as the chief magistrate in Charleston County. In an order signed by state Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, Gosnell was replaced by Ellen S. Steinberg, previously an associate chief magistrate in the county.

Toal’s order offered no explanation for the decision. Rosalyn Frierson, a spokeswoman for the court, confirmed the change but said she could not comment on the reasoning behind it.

Gosnell drew an unexpected spotlight when, at Roof’s bond hearing last week, he said that Roof’s family members were also victims. Not long after, a state Supreme Court reprimand against Gosnell came to light, showing that he had been disciplined for using a racial slur.

Gosnell’s removal does not affect criminal proceedings against Roof, which are bound for state circuit court. Last week, Toal assigned the high-profile case to Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr.

As Roof’s prosecution ground forward in Charleston on Wednesday, the focus in Columbia remained on the lives he allegedly snuffed out in a single, manic burst of violence. Stuart Andrews waited for nearly two hours with his wife, Arlene, to get inside the statehouse. He called the slain pastor a “martyr.”

“I hope someone looks at Senator Pinckney’s vision for the state of South Carolina,” Arlene Andrews said, her voice choked with tears. “We lost him, but I hope his vision stays alive.”

Berman reported from Washington. Sari Horwitz and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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