Glenn McConnell backs removal of Confederate flag; Civil War descendants vow fight

File/Wade Spees/Staff College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell (center), a past Civil War re-enactor, issued a statement Thursday supporting the removal of the rebel flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia.

After several days of silence on the issue, College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell released a statement Thursday morning supporting Gov. Nikki Haley’s call to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.

“In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy that spilled the blood of nine souls within the hallowed halls of Mother Emanuel AME Church, the time has come to revisit the issue of the Confederate soldier’s flag, which a number of our citizens regard as offensive,” he wrote. “Many other citizens regard the old soldier’s banner as a fitting memorial to the Confederate dead. However, on State House grounds, we should seek to respect the views of all citizens as best we reasonably can.”

He also called for the historic monuments, cemeteries, historic street and building names to be preserved and protected.

McConnell has deflected requests for comment since the arrest of Dylann Roof, a white man with a penchant for Confederate iconography, accused of killing nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church.

His statement Thursday comes one day after the College of Charleston Board of Trustees issued a resolution supporting the rebel banner’s removal. McConnell, who isn’t a voting member, attended the meeting but was noticeably silent.

A longtime defender of Confederate heritage, the former state senator brokered a legislative compromise in 2000 moving the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome to its current position beside the Confederate Soldier Monument, which sits at the walkway leading to the Capitol building’s steps. A Civil War re-enactor and longtime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, McConnell once owned a Confederate souvenir shop in North Charleston.

The flag debate has taken on a personal tone at the college, which sits just blocks from Emanuel AME Church. One of the college’s employees, part-time librarian Cynthia Hurd, was one of the nine churchgoers killed in the shooting, and Roof reportedly told police that he considered targeting the school.

In a news conference in Columbia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans vowed on Thursday to fight any attempt to take the flag down without saying how they would do that.

Leland Summers, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, declined to comment Thursday on McConnell’s statement. Summers and about two dozen members of the organization gathered by the Statehouse monument to issue a statement on the calls to remove the banner.

Summers said in a prepared speech that Roof is a “wicked nutcase.” Because of the behavior of “one warped mind,” “unscrupulous opportunists” are creating more hatred and division by attacking and removing Confederate symbols and flags, Summers said.

“That flag did not start a race war,” he said. “An idiot pulling the trigger on nine innocent people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, started this. That flag had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

The South Carolina division of the organization has more than 3,000 members and seeks to “serve as a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” according to its website.

Summers said the organization intends to take action if lawmakers follow through with trying to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds, but declined to elaborate, saying it would wait until next week out of respect for the victims.

Nevertheless, Summer and other members of the group criticized lawmakers who have called for the battle flag’s removal.

He said the politicians are making knee-jerk decisions, while Dickie Phalen, another member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called them “spineless.”

Phalen said he understands the battle flag offends some South Carolinians, while adding it is not a symbol of slavery and that his group abhors the Ku Klux Klan and racism.

“It’s not about race,” Phalen said. “I’ve got a lot of black friends. This is my heritage. If that flag comes down, this whole nation is going to change because that’s discrimination.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.