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If you've ever laid eyes on the 19th-century mansions that line the seawall in Charleston, S.C., you get a better sense of what President Barack Obama meant last week when he said that "societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened two to 300 years prior."

The mansions are a reminder that the port city was once the richest in the New World. Their grandeur is a testimony to the wealth of the shipping merchants who made Charleston a linchpin of the global economy, feeding cotton to hungry textile factories around the world.

That cotton, along with the rice and tobacco exports that made the South an agrarian superpower, was cultivated by slaves abducted in Africa and bought and sold in the streets of Charleston. "Slavery," historian Sven Beckert notes in his book Empire of Cotton, "stood at the centre of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history."

The immense economic stakes notwithstanding, it seems incomprehensible how anyone could have rationalized this "peculiar institution," as slavery's defenders euphemistically called it. Yet, generations of Southern whites did just that and were memorialized for their efforts. The main drag leading into Charleston is named for John Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who defined slavery as a "positive good" in 1837. "We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races … is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both," he said.

The South, grouped together as the Confederate States of America, started a ghastly war to preserve its peculiarity. It lost, but continued to assert its distinctiveness during a century of segregation, Jim Crow laws and other odious forms of institutionalized discrimination.

It's a curious form of pride that manifests itself in the hoisting of a bitterly divisive symbol atop your legislative building, as South Carolina did in 1962, raising the Confederate flag over the capitol dome as if to thumb its nose at the civil rights movement then gathering momentum.

The flag remained there for almost four decades until David Wilkins, the Republican speaker of the state's House of Representatives, sponsored a bill to remove it from the capitol and install a smaller Confederate banner at a memorial on the statehouse grounds. It was a compromise that displeased both black legislators who wanted the flag banished altogether and old-guard whites who wanted the status quo. The bill initially passed the House by a mere seven votes, 63 to 56.

Now Mr. Wilkins, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, is backing South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's push to move the flag to a museum, in response to last week's slaughter in Charleston of nine church-going blacks, allegedly by a 21-year-old, Confederate flag-waving white supremacist. The attack was a kick in the gut for a country that, Mr. Obama lamented, has not been "cured" of the racism in its DNA.

"A horrible tragedy occurred … but it is the aftermath that has defined South Carolinians," Mr. Wilkins told me. "It didn't result in violent protest, but in blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats coming together. … We now have a common goal: to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds."

No one seems sure yet whether Ms. Haley, who previously skirted the flag issue by insisting it had not impeded investment in her booming state, has the two-thirds votes in the state House and Senate needed to take it down. One Republican senator likened its removal to "a Stalinist purge." Even Ms. Haley conceded that "there will be some in our state who see this as a sad moment" and stood by the right of South Carolinians to display the flag on private property.

But it's a step in the right direction – proof, as Ms. Haley likes to say, that "the South Carolina I am privileged to lead today is not the South Carolina I grew up in." The 43-year-old Governor is the daughter of Sikh immigrants. The state's junior senator in Washington, Tim Scott, is black.

Still, neither Mr. Scott nor Ms. Haley, both Republicans, have transcended the gaping racial divide in South Carolina politics. In 2014, only 6 per cent of blacks voted for Ms. Haley and only 10 per cent voted for Mr. Scott. The party of Abraham Lincoln, which now backs voter identification laws that critics say are aimed at suppressing minority turnout, is seen as hostile to blacks and the issues they care most about.

Flag or no flag, Charleston's seawall mansions, it seems, still cast a long shadow.