COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Confederate flag that flutters 30 feet above one of this city's busiest streets still draws a mix of head shakes and shrugs from South Carolina residents.
Some are upset the banner was removed from atop the statehouse dome eight years ago. Some say they like it in its current spot beside a memorial to Confederate soldiers. And some echo a recent call by the NAACP for the banner to be removed from state property altogether.
"I used to have to crane my neck to see it," said Hester Ellerbee, a black woman from Cheraw who visits the city three times a month. "Now it's right there in front of you."
The NAACP at its national convention this week renewed its call for an economic boycott of South Carolina. Since 1999, the civil rights organization has encouraged family reunions, sporting events and entertainers to stay away from the state and officials say their new plan entails asking actors and movie studios to shun the state's efforts to lure film makers.
"We are a patient organization. We've been working for 100 years doing this. And as is always the case, outside pressure is the only way South Carolina ever gets anything accomplished," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But in this normally laid-back state, where a rare outbreak of protests and marches helped force the flag from its prominent perch in 2000, there appears to be little popular support for another push.
Some lawmakers who engineered the move to the current spot say they're satisfied. Some say the banner, passed by 28,000 drivers each day, has faded into the background. And even those who aren't pleased say there's neither the political will nor the public outcry to make another switch.
"It will take the next generation of lawmakers to resolve the issue," says state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a black Democrat from Orangeburg.
The NAACP and other critics call the Confederate battle flag a symbol of slavery and racism. Advocates say it is an emblem of Southern pride and heritage.
The flag was hoisted above the statehouse in 1962. Several efforts in the 1990s to move it failed. By 2000, opinions started to turn. With support from the state's business community, people took to the streets in a spurt of activism considered unusual for the state.
Nearly 50,000 people marched on the capitol. Former governors, religious leaders and the football coaches of Clemson and the University of South Carolina joined a 110-mile march from Charleston to Columbia. Tennis star Serena Williams made headlines when she pulled out of a tournament.
When the flag was moved, much of the steam went out of the protests. While the NAACP continues to press an economic boycott, state tourism officials say measuring any effect is difficult. They said the rate of growth for South Carolina's $16 billion tourist industry appeared to slow in the first years after the boycott began, but has since rebounded.
The state NAACP doesn't have solid figures either, but its efforts have been bolstered by the NCAA's 2001 decision to no longer bring events it holds at predetermined sites, like college basketball tournaments, to South Carolina.
Randolph said several hundred families have told the group they have moved reunions and said several large gatherings of religious groups and black fraternities and sororities have picked other places to gather. The Harlem Globetrotters also no longer come to South Carolina.
But, eight years later, Williams is back playing tennis in the state, winning the Family Circle Cup in Charleston in 2008. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce reports hearing few complaints from businesses about the flag. Democrats held a critical presidential primary this year in South Carolina and the flag received less attention than in years past.
'It's a non-issue'
Sen. Robert Ford, a black Democrat from Charleston, said one of the first bills he introduced when he entered the Legislature 15 years ago was to bring down the Confederate flag. Now, he says he can't understand why the NAACP doesn't focus instead on Mississippi, where the state flag includes the rebel banner; or on Georgia, whose flag has elements of a banner that flew over the Confederacy.
"Compared to Mississippi and Georgia, it's a non-issue because you're just talking about one flag minding its business at the Confederate soldiers monument," Ford said.
Even the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which countered the protests of 2000 with their own demonstrations in support of the banner, likes the way things are.
"Once the Senate and the House spoke and exerted the will of the people through their representatives, we accepted it. You don't see us out there protesting at the African-American history monument," said Don Gordon, chairman of the group's South Carolina heritage defense committee.
For now, most people who want to see the Confederate flag off statehouse grounds pin their hopes on the future and on young lawmakers such as Rep. Bakari Sellers, 23, a black Democrat from Denmark.
Sellers said he was embarrassed about the flag as South Carolina entered the national spotlight during the presidential primaries. But he also admits that — like many who drive past it everyday — he sometimes forgets it's there unless he happens to look up.
"People have lost hope in South Carolina for an improvement in race relations," he said.
Former Gov. Jim Hodges, who was in office when the flag was lowered from the dome, said he thinks South Carolina residents yet to be born will look at the flag one day and decide it doesn't belong.
"I think when it finally comes down, it will be with a whimper and not a bang," Hodges said.
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