South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and the state’s two Republican U.S. senators called Monday for the Confederate battle flag to be pulled down from a monument at the state Capitol and suggested it could relegated to a museum — saying last week’s horrific shooting at a black church has exposed fault lines the state must try to surmount.
Flanked by Sen. Tim Scott, the first elected black GOP senator since Reconstruction, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination, Mrs. Haley said the flag has become divisive and no longer represents her state.
Her decision sparked a flood of followers, with everyone from the Republican National Committee chairman to the U.S. Senate majority leader weighing in to join her call for action.
Mrs. Haley, the state’s first nonwhite governor, urged her legislature to remove the flag and vowed to call a special legislative session if they fail to do so.
“Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it is time to remove the flag from Capitol grounds,” Mrs. Haley said to applause from those who turned out for the press conference. “[As it’s] 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come.”
Her call for action comes just days after police say Dylann Roof, a man with ties to white supremacist groups, opened fire in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine parishioners gathered at a prayer meeting. Images have surfaced online of Mr. Roof holding the Confederate battle flag and a gun.
The battle flag flew atop the South Carolina Statehouse from 1962 until 2000, when lawmakers agreed, after a divisive debate, to move it to near a monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers on the Capitol grounds.
After the shooting, black community leaders demanded the flag be expelled from that position of honor.
Mrs. Haley, who had opposed prior attempts to remove the flag, said Monday that has changed, saying the “hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag.”
“The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something that we cannot stand,” she said. “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the Capitol grounds. It is, after all, a Capitol that belongs to all of us.”
As the host of one of the earliest presidential primaries, South Carolina’s flag debate has been wrapped in national politics for years.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended the flag atop the Statehouse in his 2000 presidential bid, but later labeled that one of the “worst decisions” he’d ever made. He was then dogged by pro-flag protesters during his 2008 campaign.
The crop of 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls likewise is grappling with the flag.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the South Carolina leaders’ announcement Monday should sway the debate.
“The decision to remove the Confederate flag needs to be made by the people of South Carolina, and Gov. Haley’s leadership today honors the people of Charleston, and the families of the victims of last week’s horrific hate crime,” Mr. Perry said in a statement.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, put out a statement that alluded to a 2001 order he signed to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the historic Old Capitol building.
“In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged,” he said. “Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin also suggested the issue should be left to the state of South Carolina to decide.
On Monday, a spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul declined to comment on the subject.
Mr. Graham said the shooting showed it was time “that we deal once and for all with the issue of the flag.”
“I hope that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition — and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward,” he said in a statement.
For his part, Mr. Scott, the state’s other senator, said the flag didn’t cause last week’s shooting but said it did reopen the debate over the emblem.
“I do not believe the vast majority of folks who support the flag have hate in their hearts. Their heritage is a part of our state’s history, and we should not ignore that,” he said. “However, for so many others in our state, the flag represents pain and oppression. Because of that, as a lifelong South Carolinian, as someone who loves this state and will never call anywhere else home, I believe it is time for the flag to come down.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, supported removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds as far back as her 2008 presidential campaign.
But curiously absent from the debate has been former Sen. Jim Webb, who is considering a presidential bid for the Democratic nomination, who declined the chance Monday to address the situation.
Mr. Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran, complained in his book “Born Fighting” about “revisionist politicians and academics” who oversimplified the complex nature of the Civil War and attempted to “defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy.”
“But what many historians miss — and what those who react so strongly to seeing Confederate battle flags on car bumpers and in the yards of descendants of Confederate veteran do not understand — is that slavery was emphatically not the reason that most individual southerners fought so long and hard, and at such overwhelming cost,” Mr. Webb wrote.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, was one of the first high-profile Republicans to demand the flag get taken down, saying via Twitter that it should be removed in honor of the Charleston victims and because “to many, it is a symbol of racial hatred.”
President Obama, in a tweet of his own, agreed, saying, “Good point, Mitt.”