Rainer Ehrhardt / AP

South Carolina leaders call to remove Confederate flag at Statehouse

Gov. Nikki Haley has joined the voices urging the Confederate flag be taken down

The Confederate battle flag that flies near the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia must come down, a group of local politicians and civil rights leaders demanded on Monday. Hours later, Gov. Nikki Haley echoed their call from the grounds of the Capitol, saying it was time to leave the flag, hurtful to so many, in the past. 

The push to remove the flag comes after the deaths of nine black worshippers last week in a racially motivated mass shooting at one of the oldest churches in the South Carolina city of Charleston, the Emanuel AME church. 

With the Confederate flag furled, “we can move forward as a state and honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven,” said Haley.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, stood silently at Haley’s press conference, but an hour later, he signaled his support for Haley’s position. “Today, I am urging that the Confederate Battle Flag be removed from statehouse grounds to an appropriate location,” his Twitter account read. 

Under state law, neither Haley nor Graham has authority over the Confederate flag at the Capitol. Only a two-thirds majority vote in the state General Assembly can authorize its removal. Haley said she would invoke emergency powers to call a session of the Assembly if the body did not address the issue soon. 

The legislature’s session has already been extended for budget debates, and state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said during a press conference earlier Monday that he would call Tuesday for his fellow lawmakers to take up the issue.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, the vice president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said the legacy of the Civil War should end where it began, in Charleston — a reference to the opening volleys of Confederate cannon fire against U.S. troops at nearby Fort Sumter on April, 12, 1861

“The Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina. We want the Civil War to end, starting in Charleston, South Carolina,” he said.

The group supporting the flag’s removal, which includes Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Mayor Keith Summey of neighboring North Charleston, announced that they would hold a rally Tuesday in the capital to protest the Confederate symbol. 

“It [the Confederate battle flag] was adopted and used by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who created the Klan,” said Wendell Gilliard, a state representative. Of those who say it has nothing to do with racial hatred, “either they’re flatly lying or poorly misinformed,” he added. “The flag represents hate of the other, especially me as the other.”

He emphasized that the move would not affect private citizens’ ability to display the flag. 

“Everyone should come to that rally to express their position,” said Summey. North Charleston saw the death of an unarmed black man in April at the hands of a white police officer. The officer has since been charged with murder.

From 1962 to 2000, the Confederate battle flag flew over the dome of the state Capitol, just below the U.S. and state flags. It was first placed there in defiance of federal attempts to end widespread discrimination and segregation across the South, according to The New York Times.

In 2000 the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for its removal. The General Assembly came to a compromise, moving the flag to a memorial for Confederate dead on the Statehouse grounds.

The leaders and politicians who spoke connected the battle flag with the suspect in last week’s mass killing, Dylann Roof, 21, who appears in a number of photos with the flag.

Riley called Roof “a bigot carrying the Confederate battle flag as an emblem.”

“It’s a historical flag, a piece of history, and it belongs in a history museum,” he said.

The flag has its supporters, like Ben Jones, the president of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A former actor and congressman from Georgia, serving from 1989 to 1993, he said he now was not the time for quick action.

“I think that a decision like this should be taken after long and serious discussions in a less heated atmosphere,” he told Al Jazeera by email. 

Jones said the flag represents his heritage, not the hate of others, and that it already exists in a “a kind of ‘museum’ setting” at the memorial. 

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