South Carolina governor calls for Confederate flag to be removed

Getty Images

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state Capitol grounds in the wake of last week’s racially charged massacre at a black church in Charleston.

“Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley (R) said Monday to cheers in a dramatic speech from the Capitol. 

“We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she added. “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the Capitol grounds.” 

The move represents a dramatic reversal of Republican sentiment in a state that for years has fought tooth and nail for its right to fly the emblem in the name of preserving Southern heritage.

During her 2014 reelection campaign for governor, Haley dismissed the notion of taking down the Confederate flag, arguing it wasn’t affecting business in the state.

And as recently as last week, prominent South Carolina lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) were steadfast in defending the flag from a wave of criticism that followed the deadly shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Yet as the outcry grew louder, many of those voices quickly reversed course.

Indeed, Graham, a 2016 presidential contender, joined Haley on the stage Monday in calling for the flag’s removal. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Reince Priebus, the national GOP chairman, were also on hand.

The Indian-American Haley was quick to acknowledge South Carolina’s “tough history,” emphasizing that for many state residents “the flag stands for traditions that are noble.”

“At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” she said.

Clyburn left no doubts about his position, saying the historical argument for keeping the emblem on state grounds is both exaggerated and anachronistic. He called it a “flag of rebellion.” 

“This whole notion that the Confederate battle flag was some flag that all of these people lost their lives under, they ought to stop telling that myth,” Clyburn said. “That is absolutely not true.”

It’s not the first time debate over the Confederate flag has surfaced this month.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier in the month that the state of Texas had the right to reject a proposed license plate design that featured the Confederate emblem — a decision that acknowledged the mixed and contentious symbolism inherent in the Southern battle flag. 

But the debate has reached a fever pitch since the arrest of suspect Dylann Roof in the Emanuel Church shootings, which left nine African-Americans dead, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D). An online manifesto allegedly penned by Roof, 21, prior to the shooting revealed a strong animosity toward blacks, and his car boasted a Confederate flag license plate. His goal was reportedly to start a race war.

The tragedy has put enormous pressure on GOP lawmakers sympathetic to South Carolina’s right to fly the Confederate flag, and Republicans on Capitol Hill issued a flurry of statements Monday endorsing Haley’s move.

“The flag to fly is the American flag because it is a symbol that this is one country and we are all Americans,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The fast-moving events highlight the difficulty Republican candidates face as they walk a fine line between appealing to the white conservatives who constitute their base and an increasingly diverse electorate that will decide national contests. The dynamic is especially pronounced in the presidential primaries, where a relatively small fraction of voters nationwide will choose the Republican nominee. 

A statement issued by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), a 2016 presidential contender, illustrates the tightrope many Republicans are walking. Perry emphasized the importance of leaving such moves up to states — “the decision  … needs to be made by the people of South Carolina,” he said — but was quick to pivot to praise for Haley’s choice.

“Removing the flag is an act of healing and unity, that allows us to find a shared purpose based on the values that unify us,” he said.

A vote in favor of taking down the flag would carry added historical weight in South Carolina, which became the first state to secede from the Union before the battle of Fort Sumter near Charleston in 1861.

The Confederate flag was originally hung above the State House in 1962, but moved to the nearby Confederate soldiers’ monument in 2000 as part of a legislative compromise.

Haley stressed that South Carolinians are free to fly the flag on private property. 

“No one will stand in your way,” she said. “But the Statehouse is different, and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way.”

Haley’s move is far from final: Two-thirds of the state’s lawmakers will be required to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds. Haley said she will call a special session if the state Legislature does not act on its own.

President Obama entered the race debate on Monday on a podcast urging the nation to confront the issue of enduring racism. 

“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n—– in public,” he said on Marc Maron’s “WTF Podcast.” “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Obama on Friday will travel to Charleston, where he’s scheduled to give Pinckney’s eulogy.

Updated at 8:30 p.m.

Tags Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Tim Scott

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video