COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – The South Carolina Secessionist Party is moving ahead with plans to raise a Confederate flag temporarily at the Statehouse Sunday. Organizer James Bessenger says he does not think recent racial tensions in other parts of the country will affect the rally. “No, to us this isn’t a racial issue, you know? Two of our guest speakers are African-American. We have African-American members of our organization and general supporters,” he says.
The rally is being held on July 10th because it’s the first anniversary of the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina Statehouse grounds. The group will raise a Confederate flag on a 25-foot pole where the old one used to fly, behind the Confederate Soldier Monument on the north side of the Statehouse. The temporary flag pole will be in a plastic base because Statehouse rules do not allow any stakes in the ground.
South Carolina lawmakers voted last year to remove the flag, at the urging of Gov. Nikki Haley, after pictures emerged of Dylann Roof with the flag. He’s charged with killing nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year.
Bessenger says their actions are one the main reason for the rally. “In all honesty, to thumb our nose at the governor and the legislature for what they did last year,” he says.
There was a pro-Confederate flag rally by the KKK at the Statehouse last July after the flag’s removal. There was also a counter-protest by the New Black Panther Party. There were several heated confrontations and some fights, with five people being arrested.
Bessenger says he’s spoken to the Department of Public Safety about security, but since there’s no planned counter-protest, he doesn’t expect any trouble. “They’ve expressed some concerns to us this last week that they’ve heard, and they can’t tell us where they’ve heard this or who they heard this from, that KKK and neo-Nazis apparently are planning to show up at the event. We’ve expressed to them that we don’t embrace these groups and we expect them to be kept away from us, just as any other protester. But no, I don’t expect any security concerns.”
After last year’s problems, the State House Committee, made up of House members and senators who oversee the actual Statehouse grounds, proposed a bill to put new restrictions on rallies and the use of the grounds. Members thought it was ridiculous to schedule two rallies for the same day when it’s likely there would be trouble. But the bill did not pass because the Statehouse is public and the Constitution guarantees freedom to assemble.
Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, a member of the committee, says, “Hopefully, these things that are going across our country will not impact any of that. South Carolina has proven how well it certainly has presented itself to the nation when we’ve had these tough, tough circumstances we’ve had to deal with, and I hope that will continue.”
The Department of Public Safety won’t talk about specific security plans, but says in a written statement, “We have assessed the security needs based on the Secessionist Party’s reservations with the Department of Administration and will make adequate security plans to address those needs – including preparations for any counter protesters.
“We are coordinating with other local and state law enforcement entities and will have enhanced security in place to ensure public safety during Sunday’s event. We don’t anticipate issues, but we will be prepared and will take appropriate enforcement action, if necessary.”
Bessenger says Sunday’s event begins at 11 and will end at 5 p.m., when the Confederate flag will be lowered.