South Carolina Legislature Finally Sees the Light

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It wasn't quite Appomattox, but the defiant — and to many, provocative — spirit of the Confederacy sustained critical injuries Wednesday when South Carolina state senators voted 36-7 to remove the flag from its perch atop the statehouse. A much-maligned compromise bill will replace the traditional Southern Cross with a smaller flag to be flown on the grounds of the Capitol — still highly visible, but, proponents of the bill hope, less likely to offend. Although the state House must pass the bill before Gov. Jim Hodges can sign it into law, many feel Wednesday's vote was the beginning of the end in the state's protracted battle over the placement and appropriateness of the Confederate flag.

Despite the lessons of history, the fierce resistance of many black lawmakers and a statewide boycott by the NAACP, a small band of Palmetto State officials have fought tooth and nail to ensure the continued, prominent display of the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome for everyone in Columbia to enjoy. The problem, of course, is that not everyone enjoys seeing that particular flag; while the Dixiecrat faction cites it as a symbol of what they refer to as the Confederacy's rich cultural history, their opponents decry the flag as a constant, taunting reminder of the bad old days of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. In the end, the stigma of national disgust and the prospect of continued anti-flag marches on the Capitol proved too much for all but the staunchest Confederate boosters.

"This debate became a source of tremendous embarrassment for South Carolina," says TIME national correspondent Jack White. "The only reason the flag stayed on the statehouse for so long was that a tiny minority of powerful lawmakers dug in their heels and insisted on ignoring the will of the people of the state." And while Wednesday's legislation represents more of a compromise than an unqualified victory for the flag's foes — the bill ensures the flag's presence on Capitol grounds and would forbid the removal of, or changes to, any Confederate monument across the state — it does accomplish one major feat: At last, state legislators have a chance to close the door on this lengthy and painful debate and finally focus on the business of governing.