SC takes down rebel flag;Poker machine controversy also ends with ban

Sunday, July 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLUMBIA, S.C. – As its reign atop the South Carolina Statehouse finally ended Saturday, the Confederate battle flag had become almost as much a curiosity as an object of division, a symbol more of the state's exhausted recent history than of its distant past.

The arguments over the flag might have grown familiar over its 38-year presence, but they were often riveting, and no issue has delineated the state's racial chasm more clearly.

Many of the people, black and white, who have streamed by the Capitol over the last few days before the flag's removal seemed wistful not so much for the flag itself but for the emotional charge it injected into public life.

"I can't remember when it wasn't up there," said Dwight Enroe, a 32-year-old mechanic who drove his family of four from Spartanburg for a last glimpse, even though he favors its removal. "For a while it seemed like that was all anybody talked about, that and video poker. What are we going to fight about now?"

By a strange and resonant coincidence, the other issue that has obsessed the state for the last decade – the spread of video gambling machines – also came to an end this weekend.

Thanks to a state Supreme Court decision last October, the 34,000 machines that had noisily overtaken most of the state's gas stations and convenience stores were illegal as of midnight Friday, the largest shutdown of a state's gambling industry in a century.

These two issues were related principally by the intensity of the passions they created among citizens and elected officials and by their ability to eclipse any other substantive discussion during legislative sessions and statewide elections.

Partisans on the various sides grumbled or exulted at the demise of the two leviathans, but many South Carolinians saw the holiday concurrence as a signal of relief and renewal.

"This is a momentous weekend," said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, who has campaigned against video poker and the flag. "After all these years of paralysis, the people of South Carolina finally rose up at the grass roots and got their representatives to respect their wishes."

Legislators voted to remove the flag from the dome and the Senate and House chambers in May.

The moral argument against it as a banner of slavery was ultimately unpersuasive; many suburban legislators who had supported the flag as a benign symbol of Southern heritage said the weariness of their constituents and the damage done to the state's economy by an NAACP-led tourism boycott finally changed their minds.

But the decision came only after flag supporters insisted on a compromise: placing a smaller, square version of the flag on a pole at the main entrance to the Capitol, adjacent to a monument to Confederate soldiers.

The crowd on hand for the eight-minute removal ceremony swelled to 3,000 at one point, authorities said.

As the flag came down, 12 Confederate war re-enactors marched to the steady thump of a drum to a fenced area guarded by dozens of police. And as it rose on the 30-foot bronze poll, some in the crowd cheered.

Like the flag coming off the Statehouse, the end of video poker was also the result of a middle-class revolt against the enormous size and power of the gambling industry, which at its peak in 1999 was generating $3 billion in yearly revenue. About 3,000 people will lose their jobs.

A referendum against the machines was on the verge of passage last year, riding an enormous tide of revulsion generated by religious and business leaders, when the state's high court beat the voters to it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.