COLUMBIA — During a gubernatorial debate last fall, Gov. Nikki Haley described the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds as a “sensitive issue” but dismissed her Democratic rival’s call to remove it.
Her reasoning was that it had not interfered with the state’s ability to attract job-producing corporations.
“What I can tell you is over the last 3½ years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
The mass killing Wednesday night at a historic black church in Charleston in which a young white gunman shot and killed the prominent pastor and eight others attending a prayer meeting has renewed the outrage over the Confederacy’s battle flag outside the capitol.
The banner has been a divisive symbol in South Carolina and beyond for decades, with some arguing its display is protected by free speech and honors the Confederacy’s history. To others, it is a symbol of white supremacy, an offensive reminder of slavery and racism.
Pictures of Dylann Storm Roof, the accused gunman in the mass church killing, an avowed white supremacist, in front of a car bearing a Confederate States of America license plate, has created a firestorm on social media sites and in the national media questioning how anyone can insist the flag is merely a symbol of Southern heritage.
Asked Friday if her views on the flag had changed, Haley was noncommittal. “We expect conversations to take place, but the people of South Carolina need to heal and our focus right now is bringing people together,” Haley said. “There will be policy discussions. ... Right now, I am not doing that to the people of my state.”
But some lawmakers have chosen to start the conversation immediately. House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said late Friday he would reintroduce legislation that would bring the flag down. He has unsuccessfully tried to get similar legislation through the Legislature in the past.
“I can’t stand across the street from that church, knowing what went on in there and why, and act like symbols don’t matter,” Rutherford said. “That young man had a flag on his chest of hatred. He had the flag on his car of hatred. He believed on it, acted on it. And if South Carolina government is serious about it, we have to take that flag down.”
Rutherford added that his colleague, Spartanburg Republican Rep. Doug Brannon, also said he would introduce a bill that did the same. A call to Brannon was not returned late Friday.
In the meantime, petitions to have it removed have been posted on WhiteHouse.gov and the liberal political site Moveon.org. The state also has been criticized for lowering the American and state flags atop the Statehouse to half-staff but keeping the battle flag at its full height.
Haley has responded to the criticism by saying she can order the American and Palmetto State flags lowered for the victims, but only the Legislature can change the display of the battle flag, which is part of a monument honoring the state’s Civil War soldiers.
Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham also has been asked to explain where he stands and has been taking heat for saying the flag is “part of who we are.”
He was adamant that Roof, not the battle flag, is to blame for what happened inside the Charleston church.
“We’re not going to give this guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him ... not the flag,” he told CNN.
But his Republican colleague, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said late Friday through a written statement that Wednesday’s tragedy was “born of hatred and racism.”
“In 2000, the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome in Columbia as part of a compromise with all parties involved,” Scott said. “We will have many conversations over the coming days and weeks about a variety of issues and solutions, and the placement of the Confederate flag will certainly be one of those.”
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, who raised the flag issue during his unsuccessful campaign to unseat Haley, said there are good people on both sides of the debate, but it clearly divides the state’s residents.
The anger directed at him after he made the call to remove it from the Statehouse grounds demonstrates why it would be better for all South Carolinians to be united under Old Glory, he said.
“There is a deep division in this state along racial lines,” Sheheen said. “And it’s very real.”
The battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1962, at the outset of the modern civil rights movement in what some saw as a show of defiance against integration and voting rights that had been denied blacks since Reconstruction.
“The flag issue ... has convulsed the state’s political culture for years, as black and white residents argued over whether the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of slavery and oppression, or of a noble Southern heritage,” the New York Times wrote in 2000.
That was the year the flag was removed from the dome and moved to the monument in a compromise that has failed to end the controversy.
South Carolina’s reputation and economy has suffered because of the state’s refusal to remove the flag. The NAACP has long called for its removal, and a long-standing boycott by the civil rights group has cost the state the chance to host NCAA basketball tournaments.
The boycott continues because South Carolina continues to be a “state in denial” by allowing the flag to fly on the Statehouse grounds, said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina conference of the NAACP. Lawmakers called the flag’s current location a compromise, but the NAACP never agreed to it, he added.
“We have always been a state of denial,” he said. “We went through the war in a state of denial. And the state of denial that existed then was that everybody else was wrong. We have never been a straightforward state.”
Randolph said he didn’t think the removal of the flag would change the attitude of people — but it would change the way the world perceives the state.
Symbols and rhetoric have a larger influence on people than most imagine, said Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic House member and lieutenant governor candidate who marched with the NAACP in opposition to the placement of the flag on the monument.
Along with Sheheen, Sellers was criticized when he also called for the removal of the flag in October. He still stands by the call, but as a former legislator he noted that a two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed to do anything with that flag, including flying it at half-staff.
“I do not blame Nikki Haley for the flag not being brought to half-staff,” Sellers said. “Nikki Haley had no authority to move it. It was an intentional act made by legislators. But the flag needs to come down. It really does.”