South Carolina Governor Calls for Removal of Confederate Flag from Statehouse
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley on Monday called for a Confederate battle flag that has flown on the statehouse grounds for more than 50 years to be removed, in an abrupt about-face as local protesters and national advocates brought intense pressure to bear on the state to make a concrete gesture of healing after the killing of nine African Americans last week inside a Charleston church.
“We are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to remove the flag from the capitol grounds,” Haley said, speaking in front of dozens of current and former South Carolina officials. “One hundred and fifty years after the end of the civil war, the time has come.”
The call was met with applause and cheering by the audience, which had listened in silence as Haley described a vision of the state sharply at odds with images broadcast around the world over the last week of tearful mourners and an empty-eyed suspect in chains.
Suddenly a symbol that the Republican governor herself, only days earlier, had said was beyond her power to move seemed to be on the verge of removal by a broad bipartisan consensus that took shape with surprising speed.
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble,” Haley said. “At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol, of a brutally oppressive past.”
“My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven.”
Haley, who is Indian-American, made reference to her own race and to that of Tim Scott, the African-American junior senator from the state who stood next to her, to say South Carolina had shown its progressiveness.
“I stand in front of you a minority female governor twice elected by the people of South Carolina,” she said.
Haley said the state legislature intended to address the flag issue in an extraordinary session, originally scheduled to finish budget work, to begin Tuesday. If the legislature failed to take up the issue, Haley said, she would call the legislature into emergency session over the summer – a painstaking prospect for members.
Under a 2000 law that moved the flag on capitol grounds from atop the statehouse dome to a Confederate war memorial about 200 feet away, the flag may not again be moved without a two-thirds majority assent of the general assembly. However, state legislators said a court challenge of the 2000 law could vacate the requirement for a supermajority.
Five days after the shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME church, the city’s mayor, Joe Riley, said the presence of the Confederate battle flag in front of the statehouse “sends mixed messages” and that the symbol of a failed attempt at secession by the pro-slavery southern states should be relegated to “its appropriate historical context”.
Pressure on South Carolina leaders to pull down the flag had mounted, as politicians and activists said it continued to inflame racial tensions in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting. The suspect in the shooting, Dylann Roof, was linked to online manifestos expounding racism accompanied by pictures of him holding the flag.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at South Carolina’s state house in Columbia on Saturday night to support lawmakers’ demands that the Confederate flag be barred from flying on its grounds in the aftermath of the church massacre.
Lindsey Graham, the state’s senior senator and a Republican candidate for president, joined the call for the flag to come down, as a cavalcade of statements from leaders of the party followed the governor’s announcement.
“Today, I am urging that the Confederate Battle Flag be removed from statehouse grounds to an appropriate location,” he said in a statement. “I hope, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition – and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward.”
Graham’s evolution on the issue of what to do with the flag was followed by fellow contenders for the Republican nomination including Scott Walker, who as recently as Sunday said that it would be inappropriate to debate the issue until the victims had been buried.
“I am glad [Haley] is calling for the Confederate flag to come down,” Walkertweeted Monday. “I support her decision.”
The governor had previously said her hands were tied on the flag’s removal, as the state legislature would need to vote to remove the flag by a two-thirds majority.
“I think the state will start talking about that again and we’ll see where it goes,”Haley said on Friday.
A Confederate battle flag was planted atop the South Carolina statehouse in 1962 by white leaders of the legislature opposed to the racial desegregation of public schools enforced by the federal government. In 2000, legislators reached an agreement to move the flag to a Confederate memorial inside capitol grounds.
State Representative Doug Brannon, an author of legislation to be introduced Tuesday to have the flag removed entirely from the capitol, said the bill had ample support among colleagues he had spoken with in the House, but that he had not spoken to any senators.
“The flag of their heritage is fine for them. And their flag of heritage needs to be in a museum,” Brannon said. “The flag that I’m talking about was put up by a bunch of white guys in 1962 in response to desegregation. And that’s not heritage. That’s hate.”
“It eventually will come down,” said state senator Kevin L Bryant, a Republican. “Some say it’s offensive and it needs to come down. Some are saying his great-great-grandfather fought and died in [the civil war], and he wants it to stay up in his honor. It’s going to be a move the legislature takes which, it’s going to be angry folks regardless.
“We’ll have a debate and like I said, I’m torn on it. I respect both views of it.”
Haley had long defended the flag’s presence on statehouse grounds, declaring that its removal was not an issue because “not a single CEO” had complained about it.
In the aftermath of the shooting, several Democratic and Republican lawmakers came out against the flag, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Speaking on Friday, President Barack Obama echoed Riley’s sentiment that the flag deserved to be in a museum and not flying at the state capitol. Several Republican presidential candidates refused to back calls for the flag’s removal.
Several South Carolina state senators who had worked alongside shooting victim Clementa Pinckney in the local legislature called for it to be taken down, alongside promises to introduce a bill that would force its removal in the next legislative session.
The resurrected discord over the Confederate flag is just the latest manifestation of a historic wound. It represents the region that seceded from the Union in 1861, in a defense of slavery, which led to years of bloody civil war. It became the source of renewed focus this week, as it was a cornerstone of a manifesto that has been linked to the shooting suspect, Roof.
Unearthed pictures found on a website alongside the manifesto – the author of which has not been confirmed – show Roof proudly holding Confederate flags, or sitting on his car with the flag adorning its roof.
Speaking alongside the mayor at the press conference on Monday, Marlon Kimpson, a Democratic state senator for South Carolina, urged constituents to speak out to elected officials.
“It’s time to end division in this state,” he said. “It’s time to move forward into the 21st century.”
Kimpson, the mayor and other community leaders at the press conference agreed that the flag’s removal would not solve underlying racial divides in South Carolina, Kimpson said, echoing sentiments uttered minutes earlier by Mayor Riley. But those present on Monday seemed to agree that it was a necessary first step.
“The time has come to remove this symbol of hate and division from our state capitol,” said the Rev Nelson Rivers, pastor of the Charity Missionary Baptist church in North Charleston, the neighboring city where an unarmed black man was shot and killed less than three months ago while running away from a white police officer.