Hate may bring down a flag

S. C. gover­nor calls for re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate ban­ner at State­house

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kath­leen Hen­nessey and Michael Muskal

WASHINGTON — Since its f irst dis­play as a show of de­fi­ance dur­ing the civil rights era, the place­ment of a Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle f lag on the State­house grounds in South Carolina has di­vided the state’s Democrats and Repub­li­cans, blacks and whites.

But on Mon­day, Gov. Nikki Ha­ley and other lead­ing of­fi­cials called for the f lag ’s re­moval, a strik­ing show of unity spawned by the deaths of nine peo­ple in a black church last week dur­ing a mas­sacre whose white sus­pect em­braced the f lag as a sym­bol of his racist ide­ol­ogy.

“The hate- filled mur­derer has a sick and twisted view of the f lag,” Ha­ley said at a news con­fer­ence along­side more than a dozen Repub­li­cans and Democrats, adding, “We have changed through the times and we will con­tinue to do so, but that doesn’t mean we for­get our history.”

The gover­nor’s sud­den dec­la­ra­tion came as Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates strug­gled to keep from be­com­ing em­broiled in a long and po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing de­bate over the painful legacy of racism from some in their party’s ranks.

Ha­ley’s an­nounce­ment stunned some observers who had watched Repub­li­cans

in South Carolina — the first to se­cede from the Union at the start of the Civil War — largely de­fend the flag as a sym­bol of state history and pride.

“I’m pretty blown away,” said Gibbs Knotts, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of Charleston. “Com­ing from the tragedy in Charleston and I think there’s just a recog­ni­tion by a lot of folks on the right of just how hate­ful this f lag and this sym­bol­ism is for 30% of the pop­u­la­tion.”

The move comes amid a larger and po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic de­bate for the GOP. The Charleston church shoot­ing fed into a con­tin­u­ing con­ver­sa­tion about race re­la­tions in the U.S., po­lice treat­ment of African Amer­i­cans and eco­nomic dis­par­ity that has steadily in­ten­si­fied over the last year, start­ing with the death of Michael Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mo., last sum­mer and the protests that fol­lowed.

Democrats used the Charleston mas­sacre as an ex­am­ple of en­dur­ing big­otry and fo­cused on the flag as an ex­am­ple. On Tues­day, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton is slated to travel to Mis­souri to meet with civic and re­li­gious lead­ers near Fer­gu­son. Pres­i­dent Obama, in an in­ter­view posted Mon­day, de­clared bluntly that “we’re not cured” of racism and used a racial ep­i­thet in his ex­pla­na­tion.

“It’s not just a mat­ter of it not be­ing po­lite to say ‘nig­ger’ in public. That’s not the mea­sure of whether racism still ex­ists or not,” said Obama, who will de­liver the eu­logy Fri­day at the fu­neral of the Charleston church’s pas­tor, the first to die at the gun­man’s hands. “It’s not just a mat­ter of overt racism. So­ci­eties don’t, overnight, com­pletely erase ev­ery­thing that hap­pened 2- to 300 years prior.”

Mean­while, Repub­li­cans try­ing to win back the White House next year strug­gled to find ways to dis­cuss the is­sue with­out in­flam­ing the white con­ser­va­tives in their base who ei­ther be­lieve that talk of racism is overblown or are re­sent­ful of out­siders pass­ing judg­ment on lo­cal cul­tural sym­bols like the Civil War-era ban­ner.

That back-and-forth played out on the cam­paign trail, where more than a dozen Repub­li­can can­di­dates are scram­bling to court vot­ers in the party’s base.

The front-run­ners for the party’s nom­i­na­tion, for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida, del­i­cately said they be­lieved the flag should go, but de­clined to di­rectly call on the state’s lead­ers to take it down. Bush em­pha­sized that the dis­cus­sion should take place within South Carolina.

That con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened faster than ex­pected — and ap­peared to be co­or­di­nated with the party’s na­tional lead­ers. A tweet from 2012 GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney de­cry­ing the flag on Satur­day served as a sort of trial bal­loon. Other Repub­li­cans fol­lowed suit in rapid suc­ces­sion Mon­day, cul­mi­nat­ing in the news con­fer­ence with Ha­ley, South Carolina U.S. Sens. Lind­sey Graham and Tim Scott, both Repub­li­cans, and a state­ment from Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus.

“This flag has be­come too di­vi­sive and too hurt­ful for too many of our fel­low Amer­i­cans,” Priebus said. “While some say it rep­re­sents dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, there is no deny­ing that it also rep­re­sents se­ri­ous di­vi­sions that must be mended in our so­ci­ety.”

The shift of sen­ti­ment about the flag spread quickly. In Mis­sis­sippi, the Repub­li­can speaker of the state House is­sued a state­ment say­ing the time had come to con­sider chang­ing the state’s flag, which has in­cor­po­rated the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag since 1894. And Wal-Mart said it would no longer sell mer­chan­dise fea­tur­ing the flag.

The Repub­li­can Party has vowed to reach out to a more di­verse group of vot­ers this pres­i­den­tial race, and strate­gists say fo­cus­ing on di­vi­sive so­cial is­sues such as gay mar­riage, abor­tion and ac­cess to birth con­trol will hob­ble that ef­fort. The flag fits into that cat­e­gory. In 2012, 98% of vot­ers in South Carolina’s GOP pri­mary were white.

The gap be­tween black and white South Carolini­ans on the is­sue is strik­ing. Seventy-three per­cent of whites sur­veyed in Novem­ber said they wanted the flag to con­tinue to fly at the Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­rial on the State­house grounds, and 60% of blacks said it should be taken down, ac­cord­ing to a Winthrop Univer­sity poll.

“There are a lot of Repub­li­can elected of­fi­cials that are just weary of seem­ingly de­fend­ing old val­ues,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Stu­art Rothen­berg said. “They’ve fought the same war over and over on the Con­fed­er­ate flag and some of these so­cial is­sues. The shoot­ing was so hor­rific, I guess some just de­cided it’s not worth con­tin­u­ing the fight any­more.”

De­fend­ers, in­clud­ing the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans, a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal group in the South, vowed to con­tinue the fight. The flag is a sym­bol of the state’s past and no longer car­ries a racist mean­ing, said Le­land Sum­mers, the group’s South Carolina com­man­der.

“There is ab­so­lutely no link be­tween the Charleston mas­sacre and the Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­rial ban­ner,” he said of the flag. “Don’t try to cre­ate one.”

This isn’t the first time the flag has sparked out­rage. In 2000, protests led to the flag’s re­moval from the State­house dome and its place­ment near the Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­rial in front of the state­house. A mon­u­ment to African Amer­i­cans was added.

Repub­li­cans’ trou­ble with court­ing black vot­ers, how­ever, goes far be­yond the Con­fed­er­ate f lag. Fringe racist el­e­ments in the party’s base re­main, along with the dif­fi­culty they pose for main­stream can­di­dates.

On Mon­day, three GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates said they would for­feit cam­paign do­na­tions from a white su­prem­a­cist whose web­site ap­par­ently inspired Dy­lann Roof, the sus­pect in the mas­sacre at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church.

For­mer Sen. Rick San­to­rum, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky said they would re­turn or do­nate to char­ity the cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from Earl Holt III, leader of the Coun­cil of Con­ser­va­tive Cit­i­zens. Holt’s group was cited in an online man­i­festo be­lieved to have been writ­ten by Roof, the 21-year-old man charged in the slay­ings.

The man­i­festo cred­ited the group’s web­site with alert­ing Roof to the prob­lem of “bru­tal black-on-white mur­ders.” Holt’s group says it op­poses “all ef­forts to mix the races of mankind ... and to force the in­te­gra­tion of the races.”

Holt said the group does not con­done the slay­ings. The coun­cil “does not ad­vo­cate illegal ac­tiv­i­ties of any kind, and never has,” he said in a state­ment.

The body of the slain pas­tor, state Sen. Cle­menta Pinck­ney, is to lie in state at the State­house on Wed­nes­day. Some have ad­vo­cated that the flag be re­moved be­fore then, but it is un­likely to hap­pen that quickly.

The Leg­is­la­ture is in ses­sion to ap­prove the state bud­get, but a change to the flag’s po­si­tion ap­pears to re­quire a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers. House Mi­nor­ity Leader J. Todd Rutherford, a Demo­crat from Columbia, pre­dicted in an in­ter­view Mon­day that a bill would be in­tro­duced ei­ther this week or even­tu­ally over the sum­mer. “The flag’s time in South Carolina is lim­ited,” Rutherford said.

Ha­ley said that if law­mak­ers fail to re­solve the is­sue this sum­mer, she’ll call a spe­cial ses­sion to get them to re­move the flag.

But it re­mains to be seen whether state law­mak­ers will yield to out­side pres­sure, said Whit Ayres, a Repub­li­can strate­gist with decades of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence in the South.

“South Carolini­ans re­ally don’t like be­ing told what to do by North­east­ern or West Coast lib­er­als, or North­east or West Coast con­ser­va­tives, for that mat­ter,” Ayres said.

Tim Do­minick As­so­ci­ated Press

GOV. NIKKI HA­LEY, f lanked by state leg­is­la­tors of both par­ties in Columbia, spoke of the church mas­sacre dur­ing her re­marks.

Mladen Antonov AFP/ Getty I mages

SEVENTY- THREE per­cent of whites sur­veyed in Novem­ber said they wanted to keep the f lag at the Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­rial on State­house grounds.

Mladen Antonov AFP/Getty Im­ages

PROTESTERS rally in Columbia, S.C., over the week­end. “This f lag has be­come too di­vi­sive and too hurt­ful for too many of our fel­low Amer­i­cans,” Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus said.

Joe Raedle Getty Im­ages

GOV. HA­LEY’S an­nounce­ment stunned some observers who had watched Repub­li­cans in South Carolina largely de­fend the f lag as a sym­bol of state pride.

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