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S.C. Gov. Haley calls for removal of Confederate flag near the state Capitol

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol following the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a Charleston church. (Video: South Carolina ETV)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that the Confederate flag near the state Capitol should be moved, reversing an earlier position she had held and adding a powerful voice to the growing chorus of calls for the flag’s removal.

“It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley, a Republican, said at a news conference on Monday.

She was joined at the news conference by South Carolina’s two U.S. senators and an array of other elected officials. Her announcement, which took place near a statue of John C. Calhoun, was greeted by a round of applause and cheers inside the statehouse.

“Some divisions are bigger than a flag,” Haley said. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer. The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”

Since a gunman shot and killed nine parishioners inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week, more and more people have criticized the flag’s presence near the state Capitol in Columbia, an issue that a march with hundreds of people over the weekend.

Over the weekend, authorities confirmed that a racist manifesto found online belonged to Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman. The Web site was littered with references to the Confederacy and images of the Confederate flag.

Haley’s announcement comes after days of peaceful protest on statehouse grounds and appeals from black leaders and activists to resolve the divisive issue once and for all. It also marks a significant shift in position from what Haley and other state Republican leaders have held before.

Last year, during her campaign for a second term as governor, Haley said that the Confederate flag was a sensitive issue, but she added that she had never heard from business leaders upset with the flag’s location. In 2010, Haley said during an interview she felt that the issue was “resolved,” calling the flag’s location near the statehouse a compromise among lawmakers that was unlikely to change.

Haley on Monday changed her stance, saying that if lawmakers don’t deal with the flag issue in coming weeks, she will use her authority as governor to call them back to the statehouse for a special session.

While Haley said people who wanted to fly the flag on their own property could continue to do so, she said “the statehouse is different,” adding: “This is South Carolina’s statehouse. It is South Carolina’s historic moment.”

Lawmakers expressed confidence that despite procedural hurdles, the flag issue could be resolved by the end of the summer, possibly soon after the July 4 holiday.

South Carolina state law dictates that the flag has to be flown at the Confederate Soldier Monument, which is on the statehouse grounds and was dedicated in 1879 to honor those who died during the Civil War.

In 2000, the legislature passed a bill stating that the flag had to be moved from the capitol dome and flown at the monument; that bill also said the flag could only be removed with a two-thirds vote from each chamber of the General Assembly.

The General Assembly is meeting Tuesday as part of an extended session. (The Post and Courier is asking lawmakers in the state how they plan to vote and logging the responses here.)

“It’s appropriate,” said Sen. Paul Campbell, a Charleston Republican, said Monday. “The Confederate memorial is there for a reason. We need to celebrate those people because its part of our history. When it’s abused by jerks like Roof, then you have to look at it from a different perspective.”

Campbell said South Carolinians look at the flag as “history and heritage” but said the shooting and Roof’s use of the flag had forever altered its image.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader, said he had spoken with House Republican leadership and said the House plans to vote to take the flag down.

“Out of something so horrific there is a glimmer of hope,” he said.

Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat, said he has been assured by Republican leadership that a vote to add the flag issue to the legislature’s extended session agenda — which requires a two-thirds majority — would pass muster with the chamber’s GOP majority. It is less clear how the Senate will deal with the issue.

In addition, Rutherford said he also expects some opposition.

“I can tell you that it will be interesting,” he said, adding that he expects the Senate to do the right thing, although it’s easier for one member in that chamber to derail the process.

Sen. Larry Martin, a powerful Senate Republican from South Carolina’s conservative Upstate, didn’t commit when asked whether he would support the removal of the flag.

“I’m going to do the right thing,” he said. “We don’t want to be viewed as being a party to racism or hatred among our minority brothers.”

He added: “By the same token, the eyes of the nation are upon us,” Martin said.

On the same day Haley declared that lawmakers would confront the issue, news emerged about the funeral for the legislator killed in the Charleston attack. President Obama and Vice President Biden plan to attend the funeral Friday of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was killed in the church shooting. Obama will deliver the eulogy, the White House said Monday.

Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, also stepped into the discussion, announcing Monday evening it would remove items bearing the flag from its stores and stop selling them online.

“We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” Brian Nick, a spokesman for the company, wrote in an e-mailed statement. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment – whether in our stores or on our web site.”

Nick added that the company has a process in place to help it determine what merchandise it will sell.

“Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly – this is one of those instances,” he said.

Meanwhile, the discussion had spread to other Southern states. The top Republican in the Mississippi House of Representative said Monday night that his state should consider changing its flag, the last in the country that still bears the Confederate symbol.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said in a statement. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”

Mississippi’s flag is the only state flag in the country with the Confederate emblem. In 2001, voters in a statewide referendum overwhelmingly chose to keep the flag.

That came a year after South Carolina decided to move its flag from the statehouse to the nearby monument. In the Palmetto State on Monday, before Haley spoke, other elected officials and activists held a news conference to call on lawmakers to take down the Confederate flag near the statehouse, saying that the change was long overdue.

After the killing of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, South Carolina legislators are being urged to remove the Confederate battle flag from state capitol grounds. (Video: Reuters)

“The time has come for the Confederate battle flag to move from a public position in front of the state capitol to a place of history,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley said at a news conference.

The flag “was appropriated years and years ago as a symbol of hate,” Riley said, and should be moved to a museum.

“I do not believe the vast majority of folks who support the flag have hate in their hearts,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “Their heritage is a part of our state’s history, and we should not ignore that.”

But he said that since it causes pain for so many others, the flag should come down.

[The Charleston church reopened with prayer, songs and tears]

The flag is still a divisive racial issue in South Carolina, where a majority of residents (61 percent) say it should remain where it is. A majority of white people say it should remain up, but a majority of black people say it should come down.

In the days since the shooting, the flag has become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, with Republican candidates gradually commenting on the issue. South Carolina is home to the first GOP primary in the South, and some candidates have struggled in articulating a response.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), South Carolina’s senior senator and a candidate for president, also called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol. The move was a change for Graham, who said last week the flag is “part of who we are.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, said over the weekend that the flag should be taken down, reiterating a stance he had taken as a candidate before the 2008 election. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate in 2012, said Monday through a spokesman that he agreed.

[Campaigns distance themselves from white supremacist donations]

Several candidates and expected candidates, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), had said the issue should be left up to people in South Carolina. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) echoed these sentiments, saying over the weekend that he saw “both sides” of the debate.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) had called the flag’s placement a state issue, and said the state’s leaders should debate it after the victims were buried. On Monday, immediately following Haley’s remarks, he tweeted his support for her statement, while Rubio issued a statement applauding Haley for her actions.

These declared and presumed candidates were joined by a series of other prominent Republican voices once Haley announced her decision. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a statement after Haley spoke, while Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, joined her in Columbia and said he supported her decision.

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley called for the flag’s removal. While Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton had not commented on the issue in recent days, during the run-up to the 2008 election she told the Associated Press the flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds. On Monday, she said she supported Haley’s announcement:

The earlier news conference Monday was held in North Charleston, the third-largest city in South Carolina, and a place that was in the media spotlight earlier this year when a white police officer there shot a black man fleeing a traffic stop. That officer, Michael Slager, was fired and arrested, and he and Roof are in neighboring cells inside the county detention center in North Charleston.

[How Jeb Bush dealt with the Confederate flag issue when he was governor]

North Charleston, unlike neighboring Charleston or the state as a whole, has more black residents than white. The collection of mayors, activists and other officials who spoke Monday framed the issue both as a reaction to last week’s shooting and as a necessary correction.

“Our goal should be to leave this world better than we found it, and I think this is a step in that direction,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

Riley, Summey’s counterpart in Charleston, had previously called for the flag to be moved. He said Monday he understands that the lawmakers are tired after a long session, but said they needed “to take the extra step and attend to this unfinished business.”

[Hate, hurt and healing converge in a Charleston neighborhood]

The presence of elected officials and activists alike should give the state’s legislators notice that the movement to take down the flag comes from the people of South Carolina,  state senator Marlon Kimpson (D) said at the Monday news conference.

As Kimpson pointed out, the official legislative session is already over, but lawmakers are set to return Tuesday for a limited window to finish working on the budget. A rally calling for the flag’s removal is planned for Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. at the state Capitol in Columbia.

[OPINION: Southern Baptist’s Russell Moore says it’s time to take down the Confederate flag]

Kimpson called on South Carolina residents to reach out to their elected lawmakers and urge them to remove the flag from the statehouse. While Kimpson said that they welcomed Haley’s voice on the issue, he stressed that it will take the efforts of state legislators to move the issue forward.

“It’s time to end division in this state,” he said. “It’s time to move forward into the 21st century. There are many who cautioned us to wait, but those people are part of the status quo, and what we have to do is galvanize and use this window of opportunity in light of this horrible tragedy and come away with a solution and an agenda to rid this state of hate, division and racism. I think that ridding the flag from the front of the statehouse is a start.”

Riley said that moving the flag would have a direct impact on “the broken hearts in this community and around our country.” More than that, he said, removing it would give the state capitol back to all of South Carolina’s citizens.

[The Charleston magistrate who sparked a debate about who is a victim]

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, who stood with Riley and the mayor of North Charleston and others during the news conference, called the flag a “symbol of the worst of South Carolina’s past.”

Rivers, a vice president of the National Action Network and the pastor of a baptist church in North Charleston, said the change was long overdue.

“The time has come to remove this symbol of division and hate from our state Capitol,” Rivers said. “The time has come for the general assembly to do what it should have done a long time ago.”

On Monday, Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, also called for the flag’s removal from the statehouse grounds.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 21: A confederate flag reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Arizona. The Confederate flag (aka the Rebel Flag) can be seen in plain view in almost any part of the United States although sightings are more common in the South. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Berman reported from Washington, D.C. Steve Mufson, Sean Sullivan, Robert Costa, Abby Phillip, Ed O’Keefe and Katie Zezima contributed to this report. 

[This post has been updated. First published: 12:48 p.m.]