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S.C. governor: Confederate flag should be moved

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)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called Monday for the removal of the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds, acknowledging that a symbol deeply embedded in state history is today widely seen more as a racist relic than as a proud heirloom.

In urging state legislators to remove the flag from the sky above the birthplace of the Confederacy, Haley joined a chorus of leaders from across the political spectrum and around the country that has grown rapidly in the days since a white gunman killed nine black people at a church in Charleston.

“Some divisions are bigger than a flag,” Haley (R) said during a news conference where she was joined by most of the state’s congressional delegation, including Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott. “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.”

The White House announced Monday that President Obama will travel to Charleston on Friday to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among the nine parishioners shot dead last Wednesday at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by alleged gunman Dylann Roof. Vice President Biden is also expected to attend.

Obama addressed the nation's continuing struggle with racism during a podcast interview Monday with comedian Marc Maron, saying that the history of slavery "casts a long shadow" in the United States, even if racial epithets are no longer part of decent conversation.

The fight over a Confederate emblem

COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 27: Demonstrators protest at the South Carolina State House calling for the Confederate flag to remain on the State House grounds June 27, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Earlier in the week South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley expressed support for removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in the wake of the nine murders at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public,” Obama said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

In Columbia, the Confederate flag emerged as a flash point after the killings, and demands for its removal continued to mount after authorities confirmed that a racist online manifesto littered with references to the Confederacy and images of the Confederate flag belonged to Roof. Even as state officials lowered the U.S. flag and the state's palmetto flag atop the capitol dome to half-staff in honor of the victims, the Stars and Bars remained at full height.

For now, the rebel flag flies atop a 30-foot pole at a monument to Confederate soldiers on the capitol’s north lawn. For some in South Carolina, the flag is a tribute to the state’s unique place as the first to secede from the Union and as home during the Civil War to some of the Confederacy’s most fervent advocates. The flag was moved to that pole in 2000 by state lawmakers as a compromise after they faced opposition, led by the NAACP, to what had been the flag’s home atop the capitol dome since 1962.

As recently as last year, Haley dismissed calls to move the flag, saying she had not heard complaints from business leaders.

Although she has reversed her position, removing the flag still requires a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the state legislature. Lawmakers could debate the proposal as a black cloth still drapes the Senate desk once occupied by Pinckney, who had been elected to represent his Charleston district.

Haley said she will use her authority as governor to call a special session if lawmakers don’t handle the issue in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and the House minority leader, said Republican leadership has assured him that lawmakers will vote on the flag. But he also expects some opposition. “I can tell you that it will be interesting,” he said.

Evolution of a controversial flag

One state senator described the calls for the flag’s removal as a “Stalinistic purge of our history.” Lee Bright, a Republican from one of the most conservative parts of the state, accused “the politically correct crowd” of seizing an opportunity.

“One bad person misusing a symbol doesn’t mean the symbol is bad,” Bright said.

Hundreds marched in South Carolina over the weekend to protest the Confederate flag's placement. Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, called for the flag's removal.

Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. employer, said Monday evening that it would remove items bearing the Confederate 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.” Sears Holdings made a similar announcement, Reuters reported.

It has quickly become clear that a growing number of people view the Confederate flag as a "symbol of hatred," as Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley called it Monday when he said the flag should be moved to a museum. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for the flag's removal, as did Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said the flag should be taken down, reiterating a stance he took as a candidate in the 2008 race.Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), his running mate in 2012, said Monday through a spokesman that he agreed.

Several GOP presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said the issue should be left up to South Carolinians. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) echoed these sentiments, saying over the weekend that he saw "both sides" of the debate.

After Haley's announcement, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton tweeted that the governor was right to call for the flag's removal, saying it was long overdue. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (D), also a presidential candidate, called for the flag to be taken down.

Even before the Charleston shooting, the flag was a divisive racial issue in South Carolina. A 2014 poll for the State newspaper in Columbia found that 61 percent of state residents said the flag should remain where it is. A majority of white people said it should stay, but most black people said it should go.

In Mississippi, the only state to have the Confederate emblem in its state flag, the top Republican in the state House of Representatives said Monday night that it should consider changing the flag.

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” 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.”

While South Carolina politics were focused on the flag Monday, new details emerged about the rocky marriage of Roof’s father and stepmother, illustrating a tumultuous period for the now 21-year-old man.

In 2008, when Roof was 14, his stepmother, Paige Hastings, filed for divorce from his father, Bennett Roof. She accused her husband of being controlling and physically abusive, according to court records.

The family had just moved back to South Carolina after three years in Florida. Bennett Roof’s small construction company had fallen on hard times. And now, the marriage of 10 years was over. Around the same time, Dylann Roof dropped out of the ninth grade.

Court filings include photos of bruises and scrapes Hastings says she got when she was beaten by Bennett Roof. "I was so scared of him that I knew I had to get out of this violent situation," she wrote in court papers.

The couple had one child together, a girl named Morgan, and were raising two children — Dylann and his older sister, Amber Roof — from Bennett Roof’s previous marriage. The court records did not shed light on Dylann and Amber Roof’s relationship with their biological mother.

Hastings said she was the primary caregiver for the children.

"I raised his kids from a very young age, took them to all of their activities and Benn's kids have spent almost every weekend with me," she wrote in a February 2009 affidavit. "Benn travels a great deal, usually 4 days a week, so I would always care for and raise his kids."

A friend wrote in a letter that Hastings was involved in Dylann's life, even after the couple separated in 2008. "She always made sure Dylann was able to visit his father, even taking him to and from his house almost every weekend. She has been very active in all of the children's lives for the past 10 years caring for them as her own," the friend wrote.

Another friend wrote that Hastings loved Dylann “unconditionally as her own.”

Berman and Frankel reported from Washington.