(CN) – South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, five days after a declared white supremacist allegedly gunned down nine in a Charleston church.
Flanked by state and federal officials, the majority of them black, Haley tried to appease both sides of the debate, saying that she was well aware some see the flag a symbol of symbol of “respect, integrity and duty … and as a memorial to honor ancestors who stood for their state in a time of war. … For others it is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutal past.”
“It is time to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said.
The governor acknowledged that removing the flag could take weeks, if not months, and she vowed to call the Legislature back into session this fall if it fails to schedule debate on the issue before wrapping up its session this week.
“Some will see this as a sad moment, but 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come,” Haley said.
Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old Lexington, S.C. man accused of massacring the pastor and several members at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday night allegedly claimed he hoped to begin a race war with his actions.
Instead, the murders of six woman and three men may well be the deat -knell of one of South Carolina’s most enduring subjects of debate. The Confederate flag has flown next to the Confederate Soldier’s Monument in Columbia since 2000, when it was removed from atop the South Carolina Capitol dome.
While flags across the state were lowered to half-staff in remembrance of those who were killed, the Confederate flag was not — it is padlocked into place and is legally protected under the South Carolina Heritage Act.
That act also stipulates that streets, parks and other public areas named for historical figures may not be renamed without two-thirds vote by the General Assembly.
In May, a group of veterans sued the state after they were rebuffed in their efforts to simply replace the bronze plaques on public war memorial in Greenwood, S.C. a community of 23,200 about 40 miles west of Columbia.
The Greenwood memorial was erected in 1929 to honor 55 local residents who died in World War I, and was later updated to include the 142 local dead of World War II. The problem, from the plaintiff veterans’ perspective, is the plaques on the monument, which is owned by the local American Legion post, divide the deceased under the headings of “White” and “Colored.”
The veterans contend that it’s just not right to honor those who died for their country in such a segregationist fashion. But when they tried to have new plaques installed, they found state law standing in their way.
But Dylann Roof’s affinity for the Confederate flag, and the racist ranting he allegedly wrote on a white supremacist website, created a tide of support for the flag to be removed altogether from the Capitol grounds.
“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.”
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. also called for removal of the flag.
“The flag has been appropriated by hate groups,” he said. “We can’t put it in a public place where it can given any oxygen to hate-filled people,” the mayor said.
Even President Barack Obama has weighed in, saying the flag “should be taken down and placed in a museum where it belongs,” though he acknowledged that the decision is up to the state.
Haley was scheduled to speak on the issue at an afternoon, with Sen. Lindsey Graham and other lawmakers.
As recently as last week, Haley had resisted calls for the flag to be removed, and Graham has said it was “part of who we are,” though he would be “fine” with it being taken down.
It’s a difficult position for politicians to take in a state where the late Sen. Strom Thurmond is still a revered figure.
The last governor to call for the Confederate flag’s removed was effectively chased out of office by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, his political career in ruins. And the group stands by its position today.
“Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate banner,” Leland Summers, South Carolina commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in a statement.
“There is absolutely no link between The Charleston massacre and the Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one,” Summers said.
But lawmakers want to deal with the issue and resolve it quickly. On Wednesday, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the senior pastor slain at Emanuel’s, will lie in state at the Capitol, where lines of mourners will file past the Confederate flag as they make their way to and from the slain man’s coffin.
President Obama will travel to Charleston Friday to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral.
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