COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ Speakers at an annual rally honoring Martin Luther King Jr. said Monday the Confederate battle flag flying above their heads on Statehouse grounds is a symbol of the injustice that still exists 43 years after the civil rights leader was slain.
They renewed a call to legislators to move the flag, and concentrate on ideas that will put people to work, keep them healthy and provide children of all backgrounds a good education.
“Take down that flag,'' North Carolina NAACP president, the Rev. William Barber, shouted repeatedly to rounds of applause.
The flag's presence, he said, disrespects people not only in South Carolina but across the nation.
But the South Carolina commander of Sons of Confederate Veterans disagreed.
“They have the right to view it any way they wish. … But I'm telling you it is. It is our heritage, and we will honor it,'' said Mark Simpson of Spartanburg, whose great-great grandfather was a Confederate soldier.
More than 1,000 people gathered for the 11th annual rally between the Statehouse steps and the Confederate Soldier Monument. The flag has flown on a 20-foot pole beside the monument since 2000.
For four decades prior, it flew atop the Statehouse, underneath the United States and state flags. After the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a boycott of the state to protest, lawmakers negotiated a compromise that removed it from atop the dome and from inside the House and Senate chambers. A smaller, square version was raised on the front lawn, near a busy intersection. The NAACP has never approved of the flag's new position.
“This is more in-your-face. That's just heartbreaking,'' said Markita Primm, 37, who, along with her 14- and 11-year-old children, boarded one of two buses that traveled overnight from Detroit to attend. Primm, who's on dialysis and in a wheelchair because of a leg amputation, said she wanted to protest the flag in person.
“This flag flying is not right,'' she said.
Primm came with 120 people on a trip organized by Detroit talk radio personality Mildred Gaddis, who pledged to keep coming every year with more people until the flag is down.
Georgia's NAACP president, Edward Dubose, said the NAACP is renewing its commitment to “not spend one dime in South Carolina until that Confederate flag comes down.'' He said he and his wife led by example on the drive, by stopping in Augusta, Ga., to order food, then waiting until they arrived in Columbia to eat it.
“It was cold, but it was worth it,'' he said.
People carried signs that read, “NAACP says don't stop, don't shop, until the flag drops,'' on one side, and “It's not about heritage'' on the other.
Simpson, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his group is not happy that white supremacists have used the flag. He said the flag's Statehouse home since 2000 is a place that honors ancestors who fought and died, and the group will continue to defend its display.
“It's a soldier's flag. I don't know why that would be offensive to anyone,'' he said, adding that he's offended that NAACP leaders have compared Confederate leaders to terrorists.
Columbia native Tim Pearson, 77, said the flag to him represents the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council and the terror they spread as he grew up. “I've never heard of it representing 'heritage' until recently,'' said Pearson, wearing a sweatshirt he had made showing a photo of President Barack Obama as he spoke at the Columbia rally two years ago.
During last year's campaign, Gov. Nikki Haley, along with most gubernatorial candidates, said she didn't plan on revisiting the issue. There's not enough support for moving it to bring a healthy debate, she said.
“If they're not ready, then they're not serious about being ready to move South Carolina forward economically,'' said
South Carolina NAACP president Lonnie Randolph.
He lambasted what he called the celebratory nature of events marking the 150th anniversary to the start of the Civil War. Honoring the dead makes sense, he said, but not like that.
He said last month's Secession Gala in Charleston, which marked South Carolina's decision to secede from the United States, was insulting to African-Americans. No one would hold events celebrating the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, or the atomic bombing of Japan, he said.
“These folks don't get it,'' he said.