South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called on Monday for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia, reshaping a heated debate over race and the flag’s meaning in a state devastated by last week’s massacre at a historic black church.
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble,” she said in a news conference at the state Capitol, in front of American and South Carolina state flags. “For many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol.”
Haley then said, now 150 years after the end of the Civil War, that it should come down. “It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds,” she said, before a loud applause.
The governor’s proposal comes five days after the massacre of nine people during a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, an act that authorities are investigating as a racially motivated shooting at the hands of suspected gunman Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man.
Critics of the flag call it a vestigial symbol of the state’s racist and slave-owning history. A trove of pictures that recently emerged on a white-supremacist site, accompanied by a racist manifesto, appeared to show Roof posing with the flag.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham released a statement Monday that echoed Haley’s call. “I am urging that the Confederate Battle Flag be removed from statehouse grounds to an appropriate location,” he said. “After the tragic, hate-filled shooting in Charleston, it is only appropriate that we deal once and for all with the issue of the flag.”
The state’s other Senator, Tim Scott, said in a statement that he also recognized both sides of the complex debate. “As a life-long 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.”
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell weighed in too, saying “the time for a state to fly it has long since passed.” He added: “There should be no confusion in anyone’s mind that as a people we’re united in our determination to put that part of our history behind us.”
Pressure has been building since the killings to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds. More difficult, though, may be the legislative path to moving the flag. A state law passed in 2000 requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses to move the flag off the Capitol grounds. A change could be added to the state’s budget bill in order to prevent any change from going into the next legislative session.
Haley’s call reverberated far beyond Columbia. On Monday evening, Walmart announced it was pulling all of its Confederate flag-themed products from its shelves and online store. And in Mississippi, one of the state’s top lawmakers, Republican house speaker Philip Gunn, labeled the Confederate battle emblem offensive and said it should be removed from the state flag.