Fourteen minutes passed between the second and third House readings of the bill that called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds. In that time, the vote count changed from 93-27 to 94-20.
Seven state lawmakers who voted Nay on the flag removal bill’s second reading at 12:56 a.m. Thursday did not vote Nay on the third reading, which took place at 1:10 a.m. the same day. Rep. Craig A. Gagnon (R-Abbeville) changed his vote from a Nay to a Yea, and six lawmakers who voted Nay on the second reading did not vote at all on the third: Reps. Michael A. “Mike” Pitts (R-Laurens), Mike Ryhal (R-Horry), William E. “Bill” Sandifer III (R-Oconee), McLain R. “Mac” Toole (R-Lexington), William R. “Bill” Whitmire (R-Oconee), and Edward L. “Eddie” Southard (R-Berkeley).
During the bill’s second reading, various representatives introduced 68 amendments for consideration, each of which was debated and ultimately tabled. Following the second reading’s approval, when House Speaker Jay Lucas gave his colleagues the option of either continuing to work after a brief recess or adjourning until 10 a.m., many of them blurted out, “Work!”
“Apparently we’re like Nehemiah,” Lucas said, borrowing a line from scripture. “‘The people had a mind to work.'”
The third reading was a brief and perfunctory coda to the grueling debate that led up to the second reading’s approval. Rep. Pitts, the author of several of the failed amendments, had made his opposition abundantly clear throughout the day.
“I never once advocated for that flag to stay where it was,” Pitts says. “What I was asking in return was simple respect for my side of the issue, and that was to give me the same representation on the Statehouse grounds that the counterparts in the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st South Carolina U.S. Volunteers, have, and that was a bronze plaque on the Statehouse grounds.”
If the House had accepted one of Pitts’ amendments, it would have had to send the bill back to the Senate for final approval, and some representatives did not want to risk a delay or a possible deadlock between the two chambers.
“They wanted the flag to come down before the Klan rally [planned for July 18 on the Statehouse grounds], and I understood that. So my Nay vote was simply a statement of my disappointment in the absolute unwillingness of the other side to compromise at all,” Pitts says.
Between the second and third readings, Pitts says he left the building. Three state lawmakers were listed as having excused absences in the final vote tally, but Pitts was simply listed under a column titled “Not Voting.”
“I had been leading a debate all day, I had not had much sleep the night before considering and praying and worrying about the debate, and I was mentally and physically exhausted,” Pitts says. “I went to my room, straight to my room, and straight to bed. Got up 9 o’ clock the next morning, and my roommate said when he came in, he thought I was dead.”
Reps. Ryhal, Sandifer, Southard, Toole, and Whitmire have not responded to requests for comment on why they, too, fell under the “Not Voting” column after previously voting Nay on the second reading.
The lone lawmaker who changed his vote from Nay to Yea, Rep. Gagnon, says he also would have liked to pass the bill with an amendment. He favored trading the battle flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for another Confederate battle flag with “less baggage,” he says.
In Gagnon’s home district in rural Abbeville County, where he works as a chiropractor, the population is roughly 70 percent white, 28 percent black. Gagnon says he knows his constituents might have different views on the Confederate flag than he does.
“I think the majority population, the white population, by and large felt it’s an icon of all things good: Southern living, Southern life … pecan pie and sweet tea,” Gagnon says. “But at the same time, I can understand the folks that look at it as a sign of division, and I’m sympathetic to that as well.”
But when he saw that the votes were heavily against him, he says he decided to change sides on the third reading.
“It was pretty much a done deal. Really, basically, what I wanted to do was extend an olive branch of reconciliation,” Gagnon says.
He adds, “Yeah, there’s going to be some hard feelings, and yeah, there’s going to be some repercussions for me come the election next year, but that’s the way it is … I’m not a sore loser, but I got beat. I got beat.”
Looking back and surveying a week of contentious debate, Pitts says it’s no accident that the strongest opposition to the flag’s removal came from the northern stretches of the state. “That is a cultural divide,” he says.
“It’s the influence of Northerners that have moved into the state and people without the connection to the Southern heritage, and then the fact that there are more minorities in the Midlands and the low state,” Pitts says.
Pitts also points out that the Upstate-Lowcountry political divide has deep roots in South Carolina’s history, going back to when plantation owners struck it rich in the Lowcountry on the backs of slave laborers while small-time farmers in the Upstate sometimes struggled to get by. Pitts says his grandparents were subsistence farmers, and he himself grew up poor.
“I can understand to a degree my African-American counterparts that grew up poor in that era,” Pitts says. “What I can’t understand completely, what I can’t fathom completely, is their side of the segregated South. I won’t say I can’t understand it — I can empathize with it — but there’s no way because that was not me, that was not part of my heritage. So I understand that. On the flip side of the same coin, they can never fully understand my love for Southern heritage, my love for the Scotch-Irish, my desire not to be over-governed.”
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