The Complex Politics of South Carolina's Confederate Flag

6-19-15 SC Statehouse Confederate flag
A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2012. The shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday stoked a decades-long debate about the presence of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the Statehouse. Chris Keane/Reuters

Dylann Roof, the suspect in Wednesday night’s mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has been charged with nine counts of murder and weapon possession. He has reportedly confessed that he wanted to start a “race war,” and his roommate told ABC News “he was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war.” Roof has donned flags of defunct racist regimes on his clothing and had a license plate featuring the Confederate flag.

Charleston’s police chief and mayor said early on they were treating the shooting as a hate crime, and the tragedy has stoked a decades-long South Carolina debate about the Confederate flag. Social media brimmed with comments admonishing the presence of the flag on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. It didn't even fly at half-mast after the deaths of nine black Bible study group attendees at the hands of a white shooter.

In a piece published early Friday, The Washington Post explained that one reason the flag couldn’t be moved was structural, according to Raycom Media reporter Will Whitson, who tweeted, “The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed.”

But the larger obstacle lies in the fact that "in South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag. Only the General Assembly can do that," South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's press secretary told ABC News.

That’s based on a compromise the state legislature reached in May 2000 that would remove the Confederate flag from its place atop the dome of the statehouse and would install it at a nearby memorial instead, The Washington Post reports. In July of that year, the Confederate flag was removed from the statehouse, since the law stipulated that “the flags authorized to be flown atop the dome of the State House and in the chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives are the United States Flag and the South Carolina State Flag.”

The same law also had very strict specifications regarding the Confederate flag:

As of 12:00 noon on the effective date of this act.… This flag must be flown on a flagpole located at a point on the south side of the Confederate Soldier Monument, centered on the monument, ten feet from the base of the monument at a height of thirty feet. The flagpole on which the flag is flown and the area adjacent to the monument and flagpole must be illuminated at night and an appropriate decorative iron fence must be erected around the flagpole.

It even described the exact measurements of each of the flag’s components:

The South Carolina Infantry Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America is square measuring fifty-two inches on each side, inclusive of the white border, with a St. Andrews Cross of blue, edged with white, with thirteen equal five-pointed stars, upon a red field, with the whole banner bordered in white. The blue arms of the cross are 7.5 inches wide and the white border around the flag proper is 1.5 inches wide. The stars are five-pointed, inscribed within a circle six inches in diameter, and are uniform in size.

Finally, whereas the governor can order the U.S. and South Carolina flags atop the state Capitol building be lowered to half-mast under certain circumstances, he or she does not have the power to move the Confederate flag from the nearby memorial.

According to the part of the law pertaining to the Confederate flag, “The provisions of this section may only be amended or repealed upon passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly.”