The Post and Courier of Charleston has been canvassing every lawmaker in South Carolina to find out where they stand on removing the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse ground. Their research found eleven state legislators expressing outright opposition to taking down the Confederate battle flag – nine members of the South Carolina House of Representatives and two members of the state Senate.
Digging a little deeper, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR) found that 73% of those South Carolina legislators opposed to taking down the flag have ties to, are members of, and/or are supported by the Tea Party. Six of the nine state Representatives and both state Senators have relationships with Tea Party groups in the state.
In the Senate
On the senate side, the charge to keep the Confederate flag flying is led by state Senator Lee Bright (District 12 – Greenville & Spartanburg Counties). In a statement, Bright took a decidedly pro-Confederate approach, warning against “scrubbing historical symbols that memorialize states’ rights.” He added,
“In South Carolina, we know what this flag symbolizes: resistance against a federal, centralized power that far overreached its constitutional limits. It proudly symbolizes states’ rights and constitutional liberties, which many have fought and died for. Symbols can be used for many things by many people, but this does not in any way remove the true meaning behind a piece of our state’s history.
Today, the Confederate flag flies appropriately above a historical monument. If we choose to remove this flag, are we to also remove the names of Confederate officers from our roadways? Should we crumble all the Confederate monuments that dot the South Carolina landscape? Where does it end?”
Despite Governor Nikki Haley’s call for taking down the flag, Bright has been trying to stall legislative momentum to take the flag down, including announcing plans to introduce an amendment that would put the issue off until the next election. “I think there are a lot more people who are supportive of the flag that are just afraid of being called racist,” Bright commented.
Bright has made his position abundantly clear. His Facebook page flies a photo of the Confederate battle flag. His campaign is giving everyone who donates a bumper sticker that depicts the Confederate banner and says, “Keep your hands off my flag.” He even launched an online petition to keep the flag on the capitol grounds.
— Lee Bright (@leebright) June 30, 2015
Bright is no stranger to the Confederate battle flag. He was a featured speaker at a February 7, 2013 “Guns Across America” rally where two Confederate battle flags were held aloft behind him – one featuring the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” snake and the other with an assault rifle and “Come and Take it” printed upon it.
Bright is also a Tea Party favorite. He’s the top-rated senator by Palmetto Liberty PAC two years in a row. He won the straw polls of the Sumter Tea Party, the Greenville Tea Party, the Seneca Tea Party and the Laurens Tea Party, when he ran for Senate. He’s spoken to the Seneca Tea Party, the Greenville Tea Party, and the Aiken County Tea Party. He was even featured by the national group, the Tea Party Express.
Bright’s petition to keep the Confederate battle flag has circulated throughout Tea Party social media in recent days, and Tea Party outrage against taking the flag down is starting to boil.
Bright is joined in the South Carolina Senate by Sen. Daniel B. “Danny” Verdin, III (District 9 – Greenville & Laurens Counties). Verdin was the only South Carolina senator who stood up to speak against extending the special legislative session to debate removing the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.
Verdin also has a relationship with the Tea Party, although it’s not as deep as Bright’s. At a Laurens County Tea Party event, for instance, he once declared “I love y’all” and has spoken to other Tea Party events.
In the House
On the South Carolina House side, leading the charge to keep the Confederate battle flag flying is Rep. Jonathon D. Hill (District 8 – Anderson County). Hill told the Independent Mail he will oppose any effort to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds and added that he was “pretty disappointed” with the governor’s “misguided attempt to combat racism.”
Hill’s Tea Party ties run deep. Before being elected in 2014, Hill was the founder and organizer of the Anderson TEA Party group. He has also spoken at Tea Party events, and is a member of the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks national Tea Party factions.
The Tea Party group Hill founded is now actively campaigning to keep the Confederate battle flag flying. The Anderson TEA Party Facebook page currently features two petitions to keep the Confederate battle flag flying. The most recent is “Petitioning SC STATE LEGISLATORS – KEEP THE CONFEDERATE FLAG UP OR GET VOTED OUT” which Anderson TEA Party leader, Johnelle Raines, endorsed, writing “Please sign as ‘they’ need to know there are consequences for their votes!” The other is a “Keep the Confederate Flag!” petition from state Senator Lee Bright.
Problems with racism disguised as American history have infected the Anderson TEA Party. While Hill was still in charge, the Anderson Tea Party held “Constitution Classes” using videos and curriculum created by the far-right National Center for Constitution Studies (NCCS).
Founded by long-time John Birch Society supporter W. Cleon Skousen, NCCS had wallowed on the fringes of the far-right for decades, but was given new life and new-found respectability inside the Tea Party movement. The cornerstone of the NCCS training is Skousen’s book, The Making of America. Originally published in 1982, the 888-page textbook is filled with many disconcerting things. Take, for instance, the section entitled, “Principle 264: From the Fifteen Amendment.” In this section of the book, Skousen refers to the Civil War as “the War Between the States.”
In the pages of The Making of America, the discussion of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, quickly devolves into a racist re-writing of history, where slavery is depicted as “humane,” where the children of slaves are repeatedly referred to as “pickaninnies,” where Abolitionists are the villains, and where Confederate leaders are praised for the way they treated their slaves.
Not to be left out of the South Carolina Tea Party Confederate bloc, William M. “Bill” Chumley (District 35 – Greenville & Spartanburg Counties) leapt to the defense of the Confederate battle flag. A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Chumley has argued that the issue of the flag doesn’t need to be discussed further, as it was decided in a 2000 compromise to move the flag from the Statehouse dome to the Capitol grounds. “This needs to go no further,” he told the Post. “It has been settled already. A compromise is a compromise.”
Chumley is one of the Tea Party’s favorite South Carolina legislators.
He received the highest House ranking from the Greenville SC Tea Party, and the second highest House rating from Palmetto Liberty PAC. He also received the endorsement of leaders of the Spartanburg Tea Party. Cibby Krell of the Spartanburg Tea Party endorsed Chumley on the group’s website, “I can’t vote for Bill in the upcoming primary or general election, but I would ask that those in District 35 beg him to stay in Columbia a while longer and continue the good work he’s begun.”
In the legislature, Chumley led the charge on bill to “nullify” ObamaCare. According to Chumley, “Mark my words, unless the precedent of defiance is set, the feds will try to force homosexual marriage on us while taking our guns AND our right to public prayer,” he declared on the Spartanburg Tea Party website.
Chumley is a fixture at Tea Party events. For instance, Chumley spoke at the Tea Party “Day of Resistance” Gun rally on February 23, 2013. He also spoke at a September 19, 2014 Spartanburg Tea Party Flag Rally in Woodruff, and a Laurens County Tea Party “Stop ObamaCare” Town Hall.
Like many local Tea Partiers, Rep. Michael A. Pitts (R-Greenwood, Laurens) has tried to deflect the issue away from the flag. “I think it’ll bring up talk about possibly moving it because that talk is just below the surface forever. But I don’t see that this incident has any bearing on the flag or the flag has any bearing on the incident. This kid had drug issues and mental issues and I think that’s the root of the problem. Racism exists no matter whether you try to use the flag as a symbol for that or not,” he stated. Like several of his colleagues, Pitts has spoken to Tea Party events, including the Laurens County Tea Party.
Rep. Craig A. Gagnon (R-Abbeville, Anderson) told the Post he sees no reason to take the flag down. “I don’t think the flag at the monument at the Statehouse was a part of the reason for doing these heinous murders,” he declared. Gagnon has been a featured speaker at Hill’s Anderson Tea Party group.
Rep. Mike Burns (R-Greenville), told the Post that the Confederate flag shouldn’t be taken down because people view it as a way to honor their heritage and their ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Burns was a backer of the Chumley’s ObamCare nullification bill, and has been praised by Tea Party Patriots, among other Tea Party groups.
Rep. Mike Ryhal, (R-Horry), a “favorite of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party” argued that the Confederate battle flag is “no problem.” “I don’t think it should be removed,” he told the Post. “It is a part of the South Carolina history. It is on the grounds. I think it’s fine where it’s at.” He also said removing the flag “wouldn’t change the way people feel about race.”
Another Tea Party favorite, Michael A. Pitts (R- Greenwood & Laurens Counties), has not yet made a public comment on the Confederate battle flag, other than to indicate he would oppose a bill to take it down.
Others in the House who expressed opposition but do not have clear Tea Party ties include, Rep. Christopher A. Corley (R-Aiken), Rep. Kevin Hardee (R-Conway), and Rep. Michael W. “Mike” Gambrell (R-Abbeville, Anderson). Among those, Corley has been the most vocal. “I’m for leaving it where it is — absolutely,” he said. “If I have to put 500 amendments on this thing to keep it there, then I will do it. This is a non-issue that’s being made an issue by certain groups trying to take advantage of a terrible situation.”
Since the Mother Emanuel massacre, Tea Party groups in the state have been relatively quiet. Perhaps they’re hoping people won’t remember that their statewide coalition invited a leader of the same white nationalist group that radicalized Charleston shooter Dylann Roof to their annual convention earlier this year.
Until IREHR exposed his scheduled participation, Roan Garcia-Quintana, a South Carolina white nationalist leader known as the “Confederate Cuban” was scheduled to appear alongside Tea Party leaders, members of Congress, and prospective presidential candidates at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition in January.
In addition to being a South Carolina Tea Party activist, Roan Garcia-Quintana is a national board member of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens. The Council of Conservative Citizens is the direct lineal descendant of the white Citizens Councils that fought to defend Jim Crow segregation during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the Council of Conservative Citizens is one of the largest unabashedly racist groups in the country. According to Dylann Roof’s manifesto, it was the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens that drew him into the white nationalist movement and fueled his racism.
Additional research provided by Zachary Reshovsky.