First time in 17 years, Confederate flag’s removal turns MLK Day into celebration

By Jeffrey Collins, AP

COLUMBIA, South Carolina–For the first time in 17 years, civil rights leaders gathered at the South Carolina Statehouse to pay homage to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. without the so-called Confederate flag casting a long shadow over them.

The rebel banner was taken down over the summer after police said a young white man shot nine black church members to death during a Bible study in Charleston. The young man posted photos online showing him carrying the Confederate battle flag flown by forces supporting the secessionist, pro-slavery southern states during the American Civil War.

Following the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, state Governor Nikki Haley reversed course and made it a priority for lawmakers to pass legislation to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“Isn’t this a great day? It’s so nice to be standing here and not looking at that flag,” said Ezell Pittman, who had attended most of the King Day anti-flag rallies since they started in 2000. “I always had faith it would come down. I hate it took what it did, but was real happy to see it go.”

Across the country, the 30th anniversary of the holiday to honor the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968, was remembered in different ways. In Michigan, people delivered bottled water to residents of Flint amid the city’s drinking water crisis. In Atlanta, Georgia an overflow crowd listened as to the U.S. housing secretary talk about the 50th anniversary of King’s visit to Chicago to launch a campaign for fair housing. In Minnesota, a rally against police brutality was planned.

Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, a leading civil rights group, said the flag’s removal was tangible evidence the state cares about civil rights when pushed hard enough. But he warned there would be other fights ahead.