Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
Pressure builds over flag
In GOP, momentum grows to rid banner from S.C. Capitol
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.