CHARLESTON, S.C.—For years, South Carolina lawmakers refused to revisit the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds, saying the law that took it off the dome was a bipartisan compromise, and renewing the debate would unnecessarily expose divisive wounds.
But opinions changed within five days of the massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, as a growing tide of Republicans joined the call to remove the battle flag from a Confederate monument in front of the Statehouse and put it in a museum.
On Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley did what a previous Republican governor found to be political suicide. Herself a Republican, she not only called for the flag’s removal but pledged to call legislators back to Columbia if they don’t deal with it in a special session in the next few weeks. Just hours before they return to work Tuesday, a rally to bring the flag down will be held outside the Statehouse.
Haley’s announcement came days after authorities charged Dylann Storm Roof, 21, with murder. The white man appeared in photos holding Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and purportedly wrote of fomenting racial violence.
Haley has for years deflected questions about the flag. But she said Monday she was moved by the outpouring of love and forgiveness that followed the “true hate” of the crime. She noted her entire family attended Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal on Sunday, when the church reopened its doors.
“My children saw what true faith looks like. My children saw that true hate can never, never triumph over true love. My children saw the heart and soul of South Carolina start to mend,” she said.
She stressed that, for many South Carolinians, the flag still represents noble traditions of heritage and duty, but for many others, it is a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it,” she said.
The governor’s declarations sparked action in other arenas as well Monday: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, becoming the first top-tier Republican to do so.
In Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans called for the removal of a bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from an alcove outside the Senate’s chambers.
And Wal-Mart announced Monday that it is removing any items from its store shelves and website that feature the Confederate flag.
Removing the flag in South Carolina won’t be easy, despite the shifting sentiment.
Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers under the terms of the 2000 deal that moved a square version of the flag to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front.
Legislators return to Columbia on Tuesday for what was supposed to be the end of a special session to approve a state budget. Just adding the flag to the agenda will take two-thirds approval by both chambers.
While those standing behind Haley included state and federal Republican officeholders, the top GOP leaders of the Legislature were absent.
But state GOP Chairman Matt Moore said the Republican legislative leaders he’s talked with are committed to the flag coming down.
“I think both parties are united that it should be done. The legislative process will obviously be a challenge given the rules of both chambers, but with enough political will anything can be done,” he said. “There is a silent majority of South Carolinians who strongly believe we can have a better future without the flag being on Statehouse grounds.”
The biggest questions remaining may be how and when legislators take up the issue.
They could take up a resolution Tuesday allowing them to add the issue to their special session. But they are unlikely to begin debating a bill to take the flag down until July — after the funerals — when they return to decide whether to override Haley’s budget vetoes.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he believes it’s both impractical and disrespectful to publicly debate the topic this week.
“I prefer us to not do that out of respect for the services that will be held,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
He said there’s a feeling among legislators to reciprocate the “gracious outpouring of folks from Charleston.”
The last governor who called for the flag’s removal, Republican David Beasley, was hounded out of office in 1998 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group’s influence also doomed his front-running Senate campaign for the seat won by Republican Jim DeMint.
“Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate Banner,” the group’s South Carolina commander, Leland Summers, said in a statement. “There is absolutely no link between The Charleston Massacre and The Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one.”
As recently as November 2014, a poll of 852 people by Winthrop University found 42 percent of South Carolina residents strongly believed the flag should stay, while only 26 percent strongly believed it should be removed.
But South Carolina’s population is slowly becoming more diverse, and more exposed to people from outside the state. The pollster, Scott Huffman, predicts that his August 2015 survey will show that people who didn’t have strong feelings before “will have flipped and now prefer it to come down.”
Only a few months have passed since Haley, an Indian-American, described an opponent’s rally to bring down the flag as a campaign stunt. She claimed last year that businesses weren’t bothered despite continuing boycott demands by black groups.
“We really fixed all that,” she said, with her election as the state’s first female and first minority governor, and the election of Scott as the South’s first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
The governor’s announcement came as civil rights groups planned days of marches and protests against the Confederate flag that Roof embraced.
“The flag got appropriated by hate groups. We can’t put it in a public place where it can give any oxygen to hate-filled people,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a Democrat.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to the grounds in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina since 2001.
That deal kept it flying high since the shooting, even as state and U.S. flags were lowered to honor the victims. It also means that when thousands of mourners honor Emanuel’s slain senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, they will likely see the Confederate flag before or after filing past his coffin in the Statehouse.
The White House said President Barack Obama respects the state of South Carolina’s authority to decide the issue, but believes the flag belongs in a museum. Obama knew Pinckney personally, and plans to deliver his eulogy in Charleston on Friday.