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Confederate Flag Issue Could Impact MLK Day Debate

Confederate Flag Issue Could Impact MLK Day Debate

By Scott Conroy - January 16, 2012


MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- As the Republican presidential candidates prepare for a Martin Luther King Day debate here Monday night, one longstanding issue that has yet to become a factor in this year’s South Carolina primary could again rear its head: the contentious debate over the Confederate flag that flies in front of the statehouse in Columbia.

Perhaps no South Carolina politician knows better the impact that the controversy can create than former Republican Gov. David Beasley, whose 1998 re-election bid was derailed after he changed his position and called for removal of the flag from atop the capitol dome (where it flew until 2000).

“I’m the last living casualty of the Civil War,” Beasley told RCP with a laugh. “If anybody’s earned the right to say something about it, it’s probably me.”

Beasley said he has no regrets about doing what he still believes was the right thing, but he offered a friendly warning to any GOP candidate who is complacent about the issue that played a central role in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

“To say it’s a dead issue is about correct, but it could be resurfaced at any point in time if someone brings it up,” Beasley said.

A symbol of slavery and sedition to many but an emblem of historical pride and Southern heritage to others, the Confederate flag that was first raised atop the capitol in 1962 has flown for more than 11 years next to a memorial on the north side of the statehouse -- where it is even more visible to passing street traffic.

When the issue was at the forefront of political discourse here in 2000, John McCain added to the controversy when he first supported the state’s right to fly the flag atop the capitol -- but later apologized for his stance after Primary Day, calling it “an act of cowardice.”

The emotionally charged issue caused an NAACP-sponsored travel boycott of South Carolina. That has had a negligible impact, but NCAA officials have raised objections over the years, and the college athletics association has declined to place early-round games in its lucrative men’s basketball tournament in South Carolina since 2002.

Nonetheless, the controversy has faded from the political conversation here.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that King Day protests outside the capitol grounds, which in previous years had focused on the flag, were this year directed at the Palmetto State’s contentious voter ID law.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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