CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s governor declared Monday that the Confederate flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds as she acknowledged that its use as a symbol of hatred by the man accused of killing nine black church members has made it too divisive for the state to display in such a public space.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s about-face comes just days after authorities charged Dylann Storm Roof, 21, with murder. The white man appeared in photos waving Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and purportedly wrote of fomenting racial violence. Survivors told police he hurled racial insults during the attack.
“The murderer now locked up in Charleston said he hoped his actions would start a race war. We have an opportunity to show that not only was he wrong, but that just the opposite is happening,” Haley said, flanked by Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites who joined her call.
“My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move our state forward in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in Heaven,” Haley said.
The massacre inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has suddenly made removing the flag — long thought politically impossible in South Carolina — the go-to position, even for conservative Republican politicians.
Haley was flanked by Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, now running for president, as well as South Carolina’s junior Republican senator, Tim Scott, and Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, both of whom are black. Within moments, her call was echoed by the Republican Party chairman and the top GOP lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Haley urged the state’s GOP-led House and Senate to debate the issue no later than this summer. If not, she said she will call a special session and force them to resolve it. “I will use that authority for the purpose of the legislature removing the flag from the statehouse grounds,” she said.
South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford says he’s confident after talking to members of both parties that the Confederate flag will be taken down within the next two months.
“A lot of people understand this is a moment we have to respond to,” said Rep. Rick Quinn, a Republican and former House majority leader who said he will vote to take it down.
Other lawmakers proposed moving it to the state-run Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both houses under the terms of a 15-year-old deal that moved it from atop the Statehouse to a position next to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front.
The last governor who called for the flag’s removal, Republican David Beasley, was hounded out of office in 1998 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group’s influence also doomed his front-running Senate campaign for the seat won by Republican Jim DeMint.
“Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate Banner,” the group’s South Carolina commander, Leland Summers, said in a statement. “There is absolutely no link between The Charleston Massacre and The Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one.”
As recently as November 2014, a poll of 852 people by Winthrop University found 42 percent of South Carolina residents strongly believed the flag should stay, while only 26 percent strongly believed it should be removed.
But South Carolina’s population is slowly becoming more diverse, more educated, wealthier and more exposed to people from outside the state. And the pollster, Scott Huffman, predicts that his August 2015 survey will show that people who didn’t have strong feelings before “will have flipped and now prefer it to come down.”
Haley acknowledged there are very different views about what it symbolizes.
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble,” she said. “The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it.”
For many others, “the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” she said.
South Carolina can survive and thrive “while still being home to both of those viewpoints.”
“We do not need to declare a winner and a loser,” she said. “This is a moment in which we can say that the flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”
Only a few months have passed since Haley, an Indian-American, described an opponent’s rally to bring down the flag as a campaign stunt. She claimed last year that businesses weren’t bothered despite continuing boycott demands by black groups.
“We really fixed all that,” she said, with her election as the state’s first female and first minority governor, and the election of Scott as the South’s first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
The day after the shooting, Haley’s posture had changed.
“We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” she said.
The governor’s announcement came as civil rights groups planned days of marches and protests against the Confederate flag that Roof embraced.
“The flag got appropriated by hate groups. We can’t put it in a public place where it can give any oxygen to hate-filled people,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a Democrat.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to the grounds in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina for a quarter-century.
That deal kept it flying high since the shooting, even as state and U.S. flags were lowered to honor the victims. It also means that when thousands of mourners honor Emanuel’s slain senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, they will likely see the Confederate flag before or after filing past his coffin in the statehouse.
The White House said President Barack Obama respects the state of South Carolina’s authority to decide the issue, but believes the flag belongs in a museum. Obama knew Pinckney personally, and plans to deliver his eulogy in Charleston on Friday.
Adcox reported from Columbia; Steve Peoples contributed from Washington, D.C.