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Black Granddaughter of Segregationist Strom Thurmond Praises SC for Removing Confederate Flag

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The Confederate battle flag that has flown on the South Carolina state House grounds for more than 50 years comes down today. Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill Thursday to permanently remove the flag, after the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved it earlier this week. This is final push in a decades-long struggle that began after the Confederate flag was placed on South Carolina’s Capitol dome in 1962 and was later relocated to a 30-foot flagpole at the Civil War monument after a compromise that required a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to take it down. As Gov. Haley signed the bill in the state House rotunda Thursday, she was joined by relatives of the nine people gunned down June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as they attended Bible study, along with three former South Carolina governors and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The flag is set to be taken down at 10 a.m. this morning and will be moved to the state’s Military Museum in Columbia, where it will be on display in the Confederate Relic Room. For more, we speak to Wanda Williams-Bailey, the interracial granddaughter of the late South Carolina senator, former governor and longtime segregationist, Strom Thurmond, who died at the age of 100 in 2003. Months later, a woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams came public to reveal she was the daughter of Thurmond and Carrie Butler, who was a 16-year-old African-American housekeeper in Thurmond’s home. Thurmond never publicly acknowledged Washington-Williams as his daughter or Wanda as his granddaughter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Confederate flag that has flown on the South Carolina state House grounds for more than 50 years comes down today. Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill Thursday to permanently remove the flag after the House and the Senate overwhelmingly approved it earlier this week.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY: And what we saw in that swift action by both the House and Senate was we saw members start to see what it was like to be in each other’s shoes, start to see what it felt like. We heard about the true honor of heritage and tradition. We heard about the true pain that many have felt. And we took the time to understand it. I saw passions get high, I saw passions get low, but I saw commitment never-ending. And so what we saw was another action, and that action is that the Confederate flag is coming off the grounds of the South Carolina state House.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is the final push in a decades-long struggle that began after the Confederate flag was placed on South Carolina’s Capitol dome in 1962 and was later relocated to a 30-foot flagpole at the Civil War monument after a compromise that required a two-thirds vote in both the South Carolina House and Senate to take it down.

As Governor Haley signed the bill in the state House rotunda Thursday, she was joined by relatives of the nine people gunned down June 17th at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as they attended Bible study, along with three former South Carolina governors and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The flag is set to be taken down at 10:00 a.m. this morning and will be moved to the state’s Military Museum in Columbia, where it will be on display in the Confederate Relic Room.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as South Carolina found resolution on Thursday, debate over the flag broke out on Capitol Hill. First, in Washington, D.C., House Republican leaders abruptly canceled a vote on a Republican-proposed amendment to the Interior Department spending bill that would allow the Confederate battle flag to be flown in cemeteries operated by the National Park Service. In another dramatic move, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi proposed a measure to remove any flag from the U.S. Capitol that includes a Confederate symbol. When House Republicans tried to remove the resolution from the floor and send it to a Republican-controlled committee, Democrats shouted in protest. First, Republicans yelled “aye,” then Democrats yelled “no.” When the ayes won, Democrats challenged Republicans to vote on the bill. The shouting began after the House clerk read the motion to exile the measure.

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: Question is on—question is on ordering the previous question. All those in favor say “aye.”

AYEVOTERS: Aye!

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: All those opposed, “no.”

“NO” VOTERS: No!

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: Opinion of the chair, the ayes have it.

“NO” VOTERS: No!

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: The ayes have it. Previous question is ordered.

“NO” VOTERS: No! No! No! No! No! No!

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Mr. Speaker—Mr. Speaker—Mr. Speaker, I ask for a recorded vote. Mr. Speaker—

“NO” VOTERS: No! No! No! No!

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: From California?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I ask for a recorded vote.

SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: Ah.

AMY GOODMAN: When the mayhem died down, Democrats held a news conference about the debate on the House floor. This is Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES: The members of the Republican Conference who support the Confederate battle flag apparently argue that this is about heritage and tradition. What exactly is the tradition the Confederate battle flag is meant to represent? Is it slavery? Rape? Kidnap? Genocide? Treason? Or all of the above? The Confederate battle flag is a divisive symbol of racial hatred and oppression. It stood for the defense of the institution of slavery. And in all of its forms, it’s time to banish it to the dustbin of history, which is where it belongs.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this historic day when the Confederate battle flag is set to come down from the South Carolina Capitol, we go now to Columbia, where we’re joined by one of those present Thursday at Governor Haley’s bill signing. Wanda Williams-Bailey is the interracial granddaughter of the late South Carolina senator, former governor, longtime segregationist, Strom Thurmond. In 1948, he ran for president as a Dixiecrat opposing civil rights.

GOV. STROM THURMOND: It simply means that it’s another effort on the part of this president to dominate the country by force and to put into effect these uncalled-for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights. And I’ll tell you, the American people, from one side or the other, had better wake up and oppose such a program! And if they don’t, the next thing will be a totalitarian state in these United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Strom Thurmond died at the age of 100 in 2003. A few months later, a woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams publicly revealed she was the daughter of Thurmond and Carrie Butler, who was a 16-year-old African-American housekeeper in Thurmond’s home. Thurmond never publicly acknowledged Washington-Williams as his daughter. Essie Mae Washington-Williams passed away in 2013. Strom Thurmond’s granddaughter, Wanda Williams-Bailey, joins us now from Columbia, South Carolina.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: Welcome. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your reaction to what transpired yesterday in your state?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: Yes, you know, this is a defining moment for South Carolina. And it’s an end of an era, and it’s a joyous occasion. So I’m excited to be a part of history. You know, it’s almost—you’re emotional. You know, when I was there for the signing yesterday, everyone was emotional. It’s an experience that, unless you are there to really understand that process—and with the stroke of a pen, Governor Nikki Haley made a difference. The deal was signed.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think this day would come?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: I actually did not. You know, I thought about this many, many times. I relocated here from California. And in doing so, part of my coming here was for research and just to be here for the moment. I had no intentions of remaining here, because what disturbed me most was the atmosphere, the Confederate flag, and not only is it hanging on a pole on the state House grounds, I have seen that Confederate flag flown throughout South Carolina, all over. So, I never felt totally comfortable.

Coming from an era of the civil rights movement—my father, who happened to have been a civil rights attorney when we resided in Savannah, Georgia—I understood that time, that process, where I couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain. So I had that exposure. And I can tell you, this is a moment. For those who fought in the civil rights movement, this is a victory. So, I am glad that the Senate and the House decided to arrive on a common ground to do what was good, the only thing that they should do, and that was to come together to make a difference and to get that vote.

So, again, I’m excited, relieved, but yet we have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of things to do here in South Carolina. This is only the beginning. But it is a defining moment. And I think in South Carolina we can now—people can look at this state in terms of being a more welcome state. Opportunities can emerge. So, I am glad, which is something I have never said before, but I am glad to be a South Carolinian as of today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned your father was a civil rights leader. This is your uncle and Senator Strom Thurmond’s son, South Carolina state Senator Paul Thurmond, calling for the Confederate flag to come down.

SEN. PAUL THURMOND: I think the time is right and the ground is fertile for us to make progress as a state and to come together and remove the Confederate battle flag from the prominent statue outside the state House and put it in the museum. It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins and work towards a better future. That future must be built on symbols of peace, love and unity. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate and divisiveness.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Republican South Carolina state Senator Paul Thurmond. Could you talk about your journey, in terms of understanding the family relationships you had to former senator, U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: Well, with Paul, which I really am just excited about what he was able to do, he stepped forward, which was really the right thing to do. He wanted to be on the right side of all that needed to happen. He elected to do that, and I’m grateful that he did. Like he described, the iconic symbol that still remains on the state House grounds as of today, which will be removed, is one of psychological oppression that has affected African Americans for decades. So, it’s something that he has pushed, and he has encouraged others, who were, like Paul, in a dilemma, that made a decision that it was the right thing to do. It is time. And in doing so, to make a difference, that’s the purpose of why they came together. He did what he felt was right to do.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel that your grandfather, Strom Thurmond, the famous segregationist who ran on that platform for president in 1948, was governor, was U.S. Senator, would feel today? And does that matter to you?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: Well, actually, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter. But that was his platform at the time. And I think, in part, it was that era, and he appealed to his voting base. So he chose to take that route. But this is a new day. And his son stepped up to help define that moment, which I am in total support of. So, that was history. That is the past. We look to the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Was it a big decision for your mother to come forward, soon after Strom Thurmond died, to say she was the daughter? In 2003, your mother, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, revealed that Senator Strom Thurmond was her father, during an interview with 60 Minutes’ Dan Rather, who asked her why she had kept secret—had kept quiet for so long. This is what your mom said.

ESSIE MAE WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: It wasn’t to my advantage to talk about anything that he had done. It certainly—it wasn’t to either—advantage of either one of us. And he, of course, didn’t want it to be known. Neither did I. I didn’t want it to be known, either. So, neither one of—we didn’t have any agreement about not talking about it. We just didn’t talk about it, either one of us. …

See, for 50—I would say 50 or 60 years now, this thing has been following me. So the fact that I am coming out now to talk about it is like a burden lifted, because I had this secret. And even though many people did know about it, I hadn’t got it off my shoulders, so this is what I wanted to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Essie Mae Washington-Williams, our guest Wanda Williams-Bailey’s mother. How difficult was that for your mother to come forward, Wanda?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: It was very difficult. And I spent a great deal of time with her prior to her coming out. And actually, I elaborate in my writing, a manuscript that I have just completed, that I spent years—this was years in the making—to encourage her to come forward. So, it was a battle back and forth to accomplish that goal. And I had to respect her opinion, and I didn’t want to coerce her into doing it. It was a decision that she had to make. But I thought it was a part of what needed to be told, her story. And ultimately, she had to make the final decision. And in doing so, after Strom Thurmond passed away, she felt, as she said to me one evening, it’s time. And at that point, she encouraged me to go ahead and make the arrangements to do what was necessary so that she could make a public announcement. And I’m proud for her that she decided to do that, because she is a part of history. She rewrote history. So, the fact that she came forward was a moment for all of us, because it allowed not only her, but her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, to say this is our heritage and our legacy, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be on the grounds of the state Capitol today at 10:00 a.m. when the Confederate battle flag is taken down for the final time?

WANDA WILLIAMS-BAILEY: Absolutely. I will be there. As they say, I will be there with bells on. I’m just excited. I just can’t wait. I’m restless. I haven’t been able to sleep. Again, this is a very special moment in honor of those—the Charleston massacre, in honor of those nine victims. This is a victory for the families. And my continued prayers go out to them, that I hope they find some sense of peace in this first phase of what needs to happen with South Carolina. We need to change. This is the first step. But as I said earlier, we have many more areas that we need to—in which we need to accomplish.

AMY GOODMAN: Wanda Williams-Bailey, thanks so much for being with us, granddaughter of the late South Carolina senator, segregationist, governor, Strom Thurmond. She was there on Thursday when Nikki Haley signed the bill authorizing the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to look at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the historic announcement he made this week calling for a special prosecutor when police kill unarmed civilians. Stay with us.

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