A massive Confederate flag covered the stairs below the South Carolina State House’s columns on Thursday.
But it was no ordinary battle flag. The bars were green, and the stars were black.
‘It’s about taking, confronting and confiscating symbols and signs of white supremacy and the Confederacy,” said John Sims, the artist who created the flag on the stairs.
At a rally on the capitol grounds, artists and activists said they were confronting the symbols of the Confederacy and other white supremacist signs.
The rally took place on the sixth anniversary of the shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where an avowed white supremacist killed nine Black worshipers. The shooting led to the Confederate flag being taken off the State House grounds after a photo of the shooter waving the flag surfaced.
The rally served as a commemoration of the nine people killed in the shooting. The organizers also wanted to amplify a message.
“We need people to understand it shouldn’t take someone to die for us to take action,” said Tiffany James, president of Columbia’s National Action Network, which helped organize the event. “It shouldn’t take anyone to die for our legislators and our police department to take action as well.”
Singer Sam McWhite began the rally with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that started off slow and somber and rose to a visceral belting when he sang, “I once was blind but now I see.”
While speaking on the steps of the State House, James referred to the detainment of Sims, who is Black, by Columbia police officers in May while he was living in an apartment as a local art center’s resident artist. He was racially profiled, cuffed and treated like an intruder for being in his own living space, James said.
Columbia police Chief Skip Holbrook defended his officers’ actions in May, saying they were responding to an open door at the art center and making sure there wasn’t an intruder. His officers followed department policy when they pointed their weapons and handcuffed Sims, Holbrook said.
James pushed back against that notion at the rally, saying police protocol that allowed the treatment of Sims was just one example of systemic racism that she connected all the way back to what she and others called “the Confederate state of mind.”
“It does not mean that protocol is just, safe and that it centers the well-being of Black folks,” she said. “Slave patrols were protocol. Black codes were protocol. Voter suppression is protocol. The death penalty is protocol.”
As James and others said throughout the rally, Sims’ detainment is “an opportunity without the tragedy” to confront and change systemic racism that is embodied in Confederate symbols.
Black artists were at the event to use their art to speak out against racism and symbols of the Confederacy.
Terrance Henderson, who creates a variety of works as an artist, took to the microphone to say, “We took down the flag, and now it’s time to dismantle the ideology and structures that support that symbol.”
“When you extract, you must fill that space. We are here to fill that space. We are here to occupy,” he said, contextualizing why the artists were taking on Confederate symbols and speaking about being Black in South Carolina and the United States.
Standing below the new red, black and green Confederate flag, poet Tammaka Staley recited a poem that focused on the darkest of those colors and its connection to race:
“Being Black to breathe, to breathe love, a wet pair of lips kissing horror in the mouth, to be more resistance to reason, to be the most revolutionary thing that the world has ever seen.”