COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina’s two U.S. senators on Monday joined the growing chorus calling for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after a white gunman killed nine black people last week in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Haley declared during a Statehouse news conference that South Carolina had “stared evil in the eye” last week, and it is time to fold the flag for good.
“Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said. “One hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War ... the time has come.
“There will be some in our state who see this as a sad moment. I respect that. But know this — for good and for bad, whether it is on the Statehouse grounds or in a museum, the flag will always be a part of the soil of South Carolina. But 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.”
Standing with Haley on Monday was a cross section of the state’s most visible political leaders: Charleston Mayor Joe Riley; Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott; U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat, and Republican Mark Sanford; and the heads of both state parties.
Afterward, Riley praised Haley for exhibiting “leadership at this moment of sadness and crisis in our state. The flag belongs in a museum, he said, adding “it’s overdue.”
During a gubernatorial debate last year, Haley demurred when her Democratic rival Sen. Vincent Sheheen said the flag had to go, saying she had never heard any company CEO complain about it.
The governor’s announcement came as support to remove the flag built Monday as lawmakers discussed strategies ahead of their return to Columbia on Tuesday to address the unfinished state budget.
On Sunday, worshippers returned to what is known as Mother Emanuel for the first time since the mass killing on June 17. Haley attended the church service with her family.
“My children saw what true faith looks like,” she said. “My children saw that true hate can never, never triumph over true love. My children saw the heart and soul of South Carolina start to mend.”
Until the shooting, the flag issue had been mostly dormant in the 15 years since the compromise of 2000 when lawmakers agreed to move the rebel banner to the Soldier’s Monument.
It had flown above the Statehouse Dome since 1962 when it was hoisted as part of the state’s Civil War centennial. It was also viewed by some as the state showing its defiance to the civil rights movement and integration.
The NAACP had kept a tourism and travel boycott of the state in place because of the flag’s display, but with little effect.
All that changed after the church shootings. Outrage built over the past week with online petitions and activists across the country saying the flag was a symbol of the racism that allegedly had led to the killings.
A key issue now is how supporters of removing the flag choose to proceed. House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said before a bill that would take down the flag can be proposed, two-thirds of both the House and Senate would have to agree to it being brought up for discussion during the special session on the budget.
There is also a faster way — the House can pull a bill once it’s filed directly to the floor. But every lawmaker in the chamber has to agree with that move, which is unlikely, Rutherford said.
Proponents of removing the flag could have an uphill climb. A Post and Courier survey of state lawmakers — predominately Republicans who control the House and Senate — found there is no consensus that the flag has to go, with many saying it’s too soon after the tragedy to act.
The deaths of worshippers in the church, including pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, hadn’t changed the views of those who said the killings and the flag are unrelated. The 21-year-old Eastover man accused of murder in the killings, Dylann Roof, has been linked to a racist manifesto on a website with a photo of him holding a Confederate flag.
“I’m for leaving it where it is — absolutely,” state Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken, said when surveyed by the newspaper. “If I have to put 500 amendments on this thing to keep it there, then I will do it. This is a non-issue that’s being made an issue by certain groups trying to take advantage of a terrible situation.”
Rep. Grady Brown, D-Lee, will bring with him to Columbia on Tuesday the document his great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier, was forced to sign pledging allegiance to the Union army after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Thomas Peterson Evans signed it on June 23, 1865, exactly 150 years ago.
Now 71 and the longest-serving House member, Grady will vote to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds. He’d like to see lawmakers remove the flag in time for Pinckney’s funeral on Friday at which President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy.
“Let’s take it down on the very day Clementa Pinckney is memorialized and the president of the United States comes to give the eulogy,” Brown said. “What a fitting way to say enough is enough.”
Haley also mentioned her authority to call lawmakers back into session under extraordinary circumstances.
“I have indicated to the House and Senate that if they do not take measures to ensure this debate takes place this summer, I will use that authority for the purpose of the Legislature removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds,” she said.
Flag supporters, meanwhile, said the banner was being unfairly blamed for the actions of an accused murderer, whose crime they called “reprehensible” and in no way was reflective of their efforts to honor soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War.
“The flag didn’t cause Dylann Roof to do what he did,” said Randy Burbage, a Lowcountry leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who said the group is outraged by Roof’s attack. But he said removing the flag is not the answer.
“The Soldiers’ Monument is a war memorial, that’s it,” said Burbage, who was an organizer of many of the events to recognize the crews of the submarine H.L. Hunley.
Burbage also warned of the slippery slope of what could happen to other potentially offensive names and places in South Carolina if the flag is removed and labeled a cause of the Charleston violence.
“What we all are afraid of is, first the flag, then the monuments, then all the street names,” he said. Burbage said a more accountable source would be Roof’s parents, not the banner in Columbia.
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, likened the removal of the flag to a “Stalinist purge.”
Former state Sen. Glenn McConnell, now president of the College of Charleston and the architect of the 2000 compromise, refused to comment Monday on the Confederate flag.
As word of Haley’s announcement spread, key sectors of the business and political community voiced their support, including the tire manufacturer Michelin which has a plant in Greenville.
“Michelin applauds Gov. Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds and agrees that the flag must be immediately removed,” said Pete Selleck, chairman and president of Michelin North America. “We are ready to support our elected officials as they take the necessary steps to do so.”
In a statement, Boeing spokesman Rob Gross said, “We support the leadership of South Carolina and the steps taken today to address this important issue for the people of South Carolina.”
The leadership at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina also supported Haley’s move.
Prior to Haley’s announcement, officials met at North Charleston City Hall in a bipartisan gathering of politicians, activists and religious leaders calling for state lawmakers to remove the flag.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the flag sends a message that state leaders are OK with what it symbolizes. “We have an opportunity to start a dialogue that will bring all of us into a better life,” he said.
Berkeley County Council on Monday passed a resolution, 5-0 with three abstaining, calling for the flag’s removal.
The group of lawmakers who will decide the Confederate flag issue is far from the same group that struck the flag compromise in 2000. Not only do both the House and Senate have new leaders, but few lawmakers serving today were in Columbia 15 years ago. Only 15 of the Senate’s 46 current members were serving in the Senate then, though four of them, including Pinckney, were serving in the House in 2000. Of the House of Representatives’ 124 members in 2000, only 19 remain in office.
At the North Charleston gathering, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, one of the newest lawmakers in Columbia, said lowering the flag would be a step toward tackling racial divisions and help South Carolina move into the 21st century.
“Ridding the flag from the front of the Statehouse is a start,” Kimpson said. “But it will not solve the racial divide in South Carolina.”
Robert Behre, Andrew Knapp, Jennifer Berry Hawes, Brenda Rindge, David Wren and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.