CHARLESTON, S.C. – Gov. Nikki Haley says the Confederate flag should be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, reversing her position on the divisive symbol amid growing calls for it to be removed.
The Republican’s about-face Monday comes after nine black church members were gunned down, allegedly by a young white man who embraced the flag as a symbol of white supremacy.
“150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come,” Haley said after rousing applause, surrounded by Democrats and Republican lawmakers. “That flag, while an integral part of the past, does not represent the future of our great state.”
Calls to remove the flag had been growing on Monday.
The White House said Monday that President Barack Obama believes the Confederate flag should no longer be flown in Charleston, or elsewhere, but doesn’t have authority over that decision.
Spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama has maintained for years that the Confederate flag “should be taken down and placed in a museum where it belongs,” but recognizes it’s an issue for individual states.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Republican state leaders held a flurry of phone meetings to figure out where they stand.
Religious and political leaders including Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson in North Charleston said they would push for the flag’s removal Tuesday during a rally in the Capitol.
Republicans U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina also joined the call.
“Last week’s terrorizing act of violence shook the very core of every South Carolinian,” House Majority Leader Jay Lucas said in a statement. “Moving South Carolina forward from this terrible tragedy requires a swift resolution of this issue.”
The Republicans who have led South Carolina for a quarter-century have rebuffed many previous calls to remove the flag, and there’s no apparent consensus between them on how they should respond now. The last governor to call for removing the flag was swiftly voted out of office.
A political compromise in 2000 moved it from the top of the Capitol dome to a Confederate monument out front, in a deal that also made it very difficult to make any other changes: A super-majority of two-thirds of both houses is required.
That compromise is one reason why the flag has continued to fly high outside the Statehouse since the shooting, even as state and U.S. flags were lowered to half-staff. The symbolism of this has angered many people, particularly after photos surfaced of shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof burning one American flag and stepping on another, while waving and posing provocatively with Confederate banners.
It also means that when the state aims to honor Emanuel’s slain senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who served among the lawmakers for 19 years, thousands of people might walk past the flag as they come to see his coffin.
At least one Republican said he wasn’t courageous enough to take a stand before, but the shootings changed that.
“I just didn’t have the balls for five years to do it,” said state Rep. Doug Brannon, who was elected in 2010.
“When my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds,” Brannon said. “It’s not just a symbol of hate, it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.”
The debate over the flag has been revived as thousands of people converged on Charleston to show their solidarity with the victims and join a mix of rallies, marches and funerals.
Bells tolled across Charleston Sunday as thousands linked up on a towering bridge and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened in displays of unity. Many people spoke about love and repudiated racism at the remembrances, hopeful their expressions would drown out the hate that the shooter hoped to generate.
“It sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff, who led the first Sunday service since the killings at the historic church known as “Mother Emanuel.”
Later Sunday, thousands marched on the city’s iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a 2-mile span with towering cable supports, and dozens of boats maneuvered underneath, blowing their air horns in support.
When the marchers from the two sides met near the middle, they cheered, clapped and broke into songs including “This Little Light of Mine.”
The bridge is named after a former state lawmaker and vocal Confederate flag supporter, one of many symbols of white power that remain in South Carolina and can’t easily be changed because of the flag deal.
Less than 2 miles from Emanuel, someone vandalized a Confederate monument, spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” on the statue. City workers used a tarp to cover up the bright red paint, which also included the message “This is the problem. — RACIST.”