Running Up the Flag, or, How John Amasa May Thumbed His Nose at JFK

battle flag

The crowd on the State House grounds watched as the battle flag was lowered this morning.

This morning, at a few minutes after 10:00, the controversial Confederate battle flag was removed from its position beside the Confederate monument on the State House grounds.

Historian John Hammond Moore researched and drafted an article on the history of the Confederate Flag atop the State House in 1999 and shared his information with Governor Hodges during the debate that ultimately led to the removal of the flag from the dome and its repositioning on the State House grounds. John had hoped the article might be published, but it was not. I have known John for over thirty years and have always admired his scholarship. I believe the following account is the definitive history of the effort in 1961 that led to the flag flying over the State House dome.

Herb Hartsook

“Running up the Flag…”, by John Hammond Moore

John H Moore and Ernest Hollings

John Hammond Moore (seated) with Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings at SCPC, 2003

Throughout the first four decades of this century, the so-called Confederate flag—now a source of considerable public anguish and protest—was consigned to discreet obscurity. As veteran ranks dwindled, banners were furled and, much like the brave men themselves, enjoyed quiet repose. During World War II, southern white boys often displayed the Confederate Navy Jack as a good-natured reminder of home and, upon return to college life, waved it gleefully at football games. The Navy Jack, with the blue Cross of St. Andrew and white stars on a red field, is a rectangular version of the Confederate Army’s square battle flag. It is not the “Stars and Bars” and never was a national standard, merely a pennant flown from the bow of a vessel.

Then in 1948, the Dixiecrats and rising civil rights rancor transformed this increasingly familiar banner into a stark, pro-segregation symbol beloved by a re-born KKK, hordes of good ole boys, and countless far-right politicians. In time, it became the logo of rock bands, skinheads, motorcycle gangs, and similar disparate fringe elements. What these groups seem to have in common is rebellion against authority—a far cry from the sacred legacy handed down by Wade Hampton and Robert E. Lee and clearly out of step with any constituted entity such as a state government.

Georgis flag 1956

Georgia’s state flag designed in 1956 in response to the 1954 Brown decision, and flown until 2001

A major turning point in this tale is the Brown v. Board of Education decision (May 1954) that struck down segregated public schools. Southern reaction was predictable, but that of Georgia is especially pertinent because it presaged what would follow in South Carolina. A fine article in the Georgia Historical Quarterly (Summer 1998) “An Act of Defiance—Georgia’s Flag Change of 1956” by John Walker Davis describes how county commissioners decided to add the now-familiar Cross of St. Andrew to the state flag.

In February 1956, state legislators agreed to do the same, despite stern opposition from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans distressed by the “theft” of their icon and its increasing use for commercial purposes, while hundreds of puzzled citizens asked why change was necessary. No explanation was forthcoming nor, at the time, was anything said about the Civil War or honoring Confederate dead. In fact, when signing the flag bill, Governor Marvin Griffin vowed it represented determination to maintain “Georgia’s two greatest traditions—segregation and the county-unit system.” The latter, a complex scheme assuring rural dominance in statewide elections, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963. As John Davis stressed, this change was “an act of defiance,” a knee-jerk reaction to the Brown decision of 1954.


Calhoun County Senator L. Marion Gressette, who chaired the Education Committee, 1951 to 1955

The same year that Georgia got a new flag, Senator John D. Long of Union County [S.C.], once private secretary to Gov. Coleman Blease, persuaded his colleagues to display the Navy Jack (now widely accepted as “the Confederate flag”) in their chamber [at the State House]. In 1956, they also passed Act 927 bestowing permanent status upon a school study committee headed by Senator Lawrence Marion Gressette of Calhoun County. This group, established by concurrent resolution in 1951, was asked to chart what course the state should take to thwart integration.

Yet another body, also created by concurrent resolution, was a key player in this saga. Born in February 1959, this was the “Commission to Commemorate the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Participation of the State of South Carolina in the American War Between the Confederated States of America, South, and the Federal Union of the United States of America, North, and for Related Purposes.” As constituted, there would be nine members—the governor (ex-officio), two senators, two representatives, and four citizens selected by the governor. The prime force, it turned out, would be the chairman, Representative John Amasa May of Aiken: lawyer, World War II veteran, commander of the South Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, and a keen student of local history. For several years, legislative journals stated (correctly) that this body was established in 1959. By 1962, however, its birth was pushed back to 1956 and erroneously linked to Senator Gressette and Act 927.

US Grant III

Grandson of the Civil War general and U.S. president, General U.S. Grant, III, served as chairman of the national Civil War Centennial Commission from 1957 to 1961.

Even before May and associates sprang into action, a federally funded national commission came into existence in 1957, headed by Brigadier General U.S. Grant, III. Most states soon fielded similar bodies that held three annual planning sessions and, at the suggestion of South Carolina, agreed to convene the fourth meeting (appropriately enough) in Charleston on April 11-12, 1961, the one hundredth anniversary of the attack upon Fort Sumter.

During the opening weeks of the year, the “Holy City” buzzed with excitement. Soon there would be parades, pageants, re-enactments, and fireworks both planned and unforeseen. However, the New Jersey commission voted in mid-March to boycott the proceedings. The problem was that a black delegate, Mrs. Madaline Williams, would be unable to attend functions held at the segregated Francis Marion Hotel. When General Grant failed to resolve this impasse, President John F. Kennedy ordered the national conclave moved to the Charleston Naval Base where facilities were integrated. As a result, the national body and those of most states met there, while the South Carolina Commission and other Southerners met at the Francis Marion as planned, although some of the latter attended business sessions at the base.

ft sumter stamp

Stamp commemorating the Centennial, featuring a Fort Sumter gun

Needless to say, the President’s action was greeted with howls of protest, with Governor Fritz Hollings and others accusing JFK and New Jersey of trying to score political points with blacks and liberals. Amid such chaos, John A. May arrived in Charleston resplendent in top hat, gray suit, and a startling Confederate-flag vest, which, he conceded, was from a New Jersey novelty house. But, May quickly added, it was ordered in December long before the current crisis developed. At his request, April 12 was a state holiday and three flags (national, state, and Confederate) flew for a week from a staff atop the Gervais Street portico of the State House.

Ft Sumter

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor

The meetings that ensued were beset by controversy when Charleston native and Saturday Evening Post editor Ashley Halsey, a featured speaker, pointed a finger at racial prejudice in New Jersey. In addition, at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of April 12th, a “rebel” landing party briefly occupied Fort Sumter and ran up a 4’ by 6’ Confederate flag supplied by (guess who?) John A. May! This band of adventurers, according to the News and Courier (April 13), included several members of the General Assembly and various “prominent” Charlestonians.

Shortly after sunrise, a national park employee hauled down the flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. However, that evening, as hundreds watched a re-enactment of the original bombardment, the newspaper said the landing party received hearty congratulations. And, it seems quite possible that, amid fireworks, backslaps, and bourbon, many talked of a site where state authority, not federal, reigned supreme, namely the lofty dome of the State House in Columbia.

But no flag had flown there for nearly a decade, largely because ascension to that pinnacle was too risky. To get there, one had to mount rickety stairs, pass through two trap doors, and mount a long ladder. However, despite such obstacles, early in 1962 the pace quickened. On January 9, David Hall, a Lexington County steeplejack who had done the job before, climbed up the thirty-foot pole atop the dome, attached a chain to a pulley, and soon the Stars and Stripes and state flag were flapping in a winter breeze.

battle flag

The battle flag flying atop the dome of the State House

At first, as we know, there were only two. But on February 14, 1962, John May and F. Julian LeaMond of Charleston introduced House Bill 2261, a concurrent resolution stipulating that the Confederate flag be flown over the State House. Much like Georgia’s experience in 1956, at the time no one said the intent was to honor Confederate dead or mark the anniversary of the Civil War. The House gave quick approval, and the Senate concurred a month later, returning the measure to the lower body on March 20. The first public notice of what had happened was a picture in Section B of the Columbia Record (March 28) showing three flags atop the dome, a Maxie Roberts photo of the American, state, and “recently added Stars and Bars.”

This strange tale out of South Carolina’s recent past takes curious twists and turns. Sometimes there are no flags, sometimes two, and then three. And, since John Fitzgerald Kennedy plays a pivotal role in this drama—it was his decision in March 1961 that prompted John May and friends to run up what they assumed was the Confederate flag (“in your face, Jack-boy!”)—one might ask what flags, if any, flew over the State House following the young President’s tragic death in November 1963. Were all three aloft…were there only two…or perhaps none?
The answer can be found in the Columbia Record of Monday, November 25th, a day set aside for national mourning. Banks, offices, colleges, and schools were closed, millions watched the sad funeral pageant on TV, and there—on page 1 of Section D—was a photo of Columbia’s Main Street and the State House with three flags at half staff, “an act of defiance” still, even as the slain leader, for over two years a prime target of segregationist scorn, was being praised, eulogized, and laid to rest.

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