COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that the Confederate flag near the state Capitol should be moved, reversing an earlier position she had held and adding a powerful voice to the growing chorus of calls for the flag’s removal.
“It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley, a Republican, said at a news conference on Monday.
She was joined at the news conference by South Carolina’s two U.S. senators and an array of other elected officials. Her announcement was greeted by a round of applause and cheers inside the statehouse.
“Some divisions are bigger than a flag,” Haley said. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer. The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”
Since a gunman shot and killed nine parishioners inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week, more and more people have criticized the flag’s presence near the state Capitol in Columbia. Hundreds marched over the weekend to protest the flag’s placement.
Over the weekend, authorities confirmed that a racist manifesto found online belonged to Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman. The Web site was littered with references to the Confederacy and images of the Confederate flag.
Haley’s announcement comes after days of peaceful protest on statehouse grounds and appeals from black leaders and activists to resolve the divisive issue once and for all. It marks a significant shift in position from what Haley and other state Republican leaders have held before.
Last year, during her campaign for a second term as governor, Haley dismissed calls to move the flag, saying during a debate that she had not heard complaints from business leaders upset with the flag’s location.
Haley said that if lawmakers don’t deal with the flag issue in coming weeks, she will use her authority as governor to call them back to the statehouse for a special session.
While Haley said people who wanted to fly the flag on their own property could continue to do so, she said “the statehouse is different,” adding: “This is South Carolina’s statehouse. It is South Carolina’s historic moment.”
South Carolina state law dictates that the flag has to be flown at the Confederate Soldier Monument, which is on the statehouse grounds and was dedicated in 1879 to honor those who died during the Civil War.
In 2000, the legislature passed a bill stating that the flag had to be moved from the capitol dome and flown at the monument; that bill also said the flag could only be removed with a two-thirds vote from each chamber of the General Assembly.
“It’s appropriate,” said Sen. Paul Campbell, a Charleston Republican, said Monday. “The Confederate memorial is there for a reason. We need to celebrate those people because its part of our history. When it’s abused by jerks like Roof, then you have to look at it from a different perspective.”
Campbell said South Carolinians look at the flag as “history and heritage” but said the shooting and Roof’s use of the flag had forever altered its image.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader, said he had spoken with House Republican leadership and said the House plans to vote to take the flag down. “Out of something so horrific there is a glimmer of hope,” he said.
Sen. Larry Martin, a powerful Senate Republican from South Carolina’s conservative Upstate, didn’t commit when asked whether he would support the removal of the flag.
“I’m going to do the right thing,” he said. “We don’t want to be viewed as being a party to racism or hatred among our minority brothers.”
He said he wasn’t sure when or if the General Assembly could take up the issue this year. The General Assembly is currently meeting as part of an extended session but the rules make it more difficult to take up new legislation.
“By the same token, the eyes of the nation are upon us,” Martin said.
On the same day Haley declared that lawmakers would confront the issue, news emerged about the funeral for the legislator killed in the Charleston attack. President Obama and Vice President Biden plan to attend the funeral Friday of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was killed in the church shooting. Obama will deliver the eulogy, the White House said Monday.
Earlier on Monday, other elected officials and activists held a news conference to call on lawmakers to take down the Confederate flag flying near the statehouse in the capitol, saying that the change was long overdue.
“The time has come for the Confederate battle flag to move from a public position in front of the state capitol to a place of history,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley said at a news conference.
The flag “was appropriated years and years ago as a symbol of hate,” Riley said, and should be moved to a museum.
The flag is still a divisive racial issue in South Carolina, where a majority of residents (61 percent) say it should remain where it is. A majority of white people say it should remain up, but a majority of black people say it should come down.
In the days since the shooting, the flag has also become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, with Republican candidates gradually commenting on the issue. South Carolina is home to the first GOP primary in the South, and some candidates have struggled in articulating a response.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), South Carolina’s senior senator and a candidate for president, also called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol. The move was a change for Graham, who said last week the flag is “part of who we are.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, said over the weekend that the flag should be taken down, reiterating a stance he had taken as a candidate before the 2008 election. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate in 2012, said Monday through a spokesman that he agreed.
Several candidates and expected candidates, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), said the issue should be left up to people in South Carolina. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) echoed these sentiments, saying over the weekend that he saw “both sides” of the debate.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) had called the flag’s placement a state issue, and said the state’s leaders should debate it after the victims were buried. On Monday, immediately following Haley’s remarks, he tweeted his support for her statement.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley called for the flag’s removal. While Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton has not commented on the issue yet, during the run-up to the 2008 election she told the Associated Press the flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds.
The earlier news conference Monday was held in North Charleston, the third-largest city in South Carolina, and a place that was in the media spotlight earlier this year when a white police officer there shot a black man fleeing a traffic stop. That officer, Michael Slager, was fired and arrested, and he and Roof are in neighboring cells inside the county detention center in North Charleston.
North Charleston, unlike neighboring Charleston or the state as a whole, has more black residents than white. The collection of mayors, activists and other officials who spoke Monday framed the issue both as a reaction to last week’s shooting and as a necessary correction.
“Our goal should be to leave this world better than we found it, and I think this is a step in that direction,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.
Riley, Summey’s counterpart in Charleston, had previously called for the flag to be moved. He said Monday he understands that the lawmakers are tired after a long session, but said they needed “to take the extra step and attend to this unfinished business.”
The presence of elected officials and activists alike should give the state’s legislators notice that the movement to take down the flag comes from the people of South Carolina, state senator Marlon Kimpson (D) said at the Monday news conference.
As Kimpson pointed out, the official legislative session is already over, but lawmakers are set to return Tuesday for a limited window to finish working on the budget. A rally calling for the flag’s removal is planned for Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. at the state Capitol in Columbia.
Kimpson called on South Carolina residents to reach out to their elected lawmakers and urge them to remove the flag from the statehouse. While Kimpson said that they welcomed Haley’s voice on the issue, he stressed that it will take the efforts of state legislators to move the issue forward.
“It’s time to end division in this state,” he said. “It’s time to move forward into the 21st century. There are many who cautioned us to wait, but those people are part of the status quo, and what we have to do is galvanize and use this window of opportunity in light of this horrible tragedy and come away with a solution and an agenda to rid this state of hate, division and racism. I think that ridding the flag from the front of the statehouse is a start.”
Riley said that moving the flag would have a direct impact on “the broken hearts in this community and around our country.” More than that, he said, removing it would give the state capitol back to all of South Carolina’s citizens.
[The Charleston magistrate who sparked a debate about who is a victim]
The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, who stood with Riley and the mayor of North Charleston and others during the news conference, called the flag a “symbol of the worst of South Carolina’s past.”
Rivers, a vice president of the National Action Network and the pastor of a baptist church in North Charleston, said the change was long overdue.
“The time has come to remove this symbol of division and hate from our state Capitol,” Rivers said. “The time has come for the general assembly to do what it should have done a long time ago.”
On Monday, Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, also called for the flag’s removal from the statehouse grounds.