COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After months of bad press and a tourism boycott led by the NAACP, South Carolina lawmakers have taken their biggest step yet toward removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome.
The House, in a 63-56 vote late Wednesday, passed a measure to remove the flag and place a similar banner at monument honoring Confederate soldiers elsewhere on the grounds of the Capitol.
After a procedural vote today, the bill was to go back to the Senate, which was expected to approve minor House changes. Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges has said he would sign any bill the Legislature passes to remove the flag.
If the bill becomes law, the flag would be lowered July 1.
''We are one giant step closer to ending the flag debate,'' Hodges said Wednesday as South Carolina observed its first official Confederate Memorial Day. Hodges signed legislation last week creating the day as well as a state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
South Carolina is the only state that flies the Confederate flag above its Statehouse, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been leading the tourism boycott of the state until the flag is removed.
The Confederate flag was raised above the Statehouse in 1962 to commemorate the Civil War centennial, though critics suggest it also was done in defiance of the civil rights movement. Flag supporters say it is an important part of the state's heritage. Opponents say it represents slavery and hatred.
The House vote Wednesday capped an emotional day as protesters burned the Confederate and Nazi flags on the Statehouse lawn while lawmakers debated inside. Earlier, someone vandalized the Confederate soldier monument, spray painting the words ''take it down, don't put it here'' in red on the granite base. No immediate arrests were made.
Inside, hard-core flag supporters and members of the House Black Caucus tried to derail the legislation. Supporters wanted to kill the bill to keep the flag atop the dome, while many black legislators didn't want a new flag put at the monument located at one of Columbia's busiest intersections. They and the NAACP say it would be in too prominent a place.
Only three black House members voted for the flag compromise bill.
''My vote was very difficult,'' said House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, a Republican flag supporter who cried after casting his vote for the compromise. ''It was the hardest vote I ever cast.''
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