Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Pressure builds over flag

In GOP, momentum grows to rid banner from S.C. Capitol

- By Kathleen Hennessey and Michael Muskal Tribune Newspapers Kathleen Hennessey reported from Washington and Michael Muskal from Los Angeles.

Political momentum is growing to try to force South Carolina lawmakers to remove the Confederat­e flag from its state capitol grounds.

WASHINGTON — Spurred by both tragedy and political expediency, South Carolina’s leading Republican­s called Monday for the removal of the Confederat­e flag from state Capitol grounds, while the national party and its presidenti­al candidates struggled to keep from becoming embroiled in a long and potentiall­y damaging debate over the painful legacy of racism.

At a news conference with a more than dozen Republican and Democratic officials, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her previous position and declared “it’s time” to remove the flag from a memorial for the Confederat­e dead.

The scene was a striking show of sudden unity on an issue that has divided Democrats and Republican­s, blacks and whites, in the state. But the massacre of nine people in a black church last week in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by a young white man who embraced the flag as a symbol of his racist ideology, seemed to quickly persuade the state’s leaders to change course.

“The hate-filled murderer has a sick and twisted view of the flag,” Haley said, 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 declaratio­n stunned some observers who had watched Republican­s in the state, the first to secede at the start of the Civil War, defend the flag as a symbol of South Carolina’s 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 flag and this symbolism is for 30 percent of the population.”

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

Democrats quickly used the Charleston massacre as an example of the 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 Barack Obama, in an interview posted Monday, declared bluntly that “we’re not cured” of racism.

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

The front-runners for the nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, both delicately said they believed the flag should go but would not directly tell state leaders to take it down. Bush stressed 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 and South Carolina’s Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republican­s.

Defenders, including the Sons of Confederat­e Veterans, a social and political group in the South, vowed the fight would not end. The flag is a symbol of the state’s past and no longer carries the 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.”

On Monday, three presidenti­al candidates said they would forfeit money they had received from the leader of a white supremacis­t group that has drawn scrutiny after the massacre.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said they would donate to charity or return the campaign contributi­ons made by Earl Holt III, leader of the Council of Conservati­ve Citizens. Holt’s group was cited in an online manifesto believed to be written by Dylann Roof, charged in the shooting.

In a statement, Holt said the group did not condone Roof’s actions. The council “does not advocate illegal activities of any kind, and never has,” Holt said.

 ?? JOE RAEDLE/GETTY ?? GOP South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, second left, is joined by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, second right, and other lawmakers and activists as she declares Monday that the Confederat­e flag should be removed from the Capitol grounds.
JOE RAEDLE/GETTY GOP South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, second left, is joined by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, second right, and other lawmakers and activists as she declares Monday that the Confederat­e flag should be removed from the Capitol grounds.

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