‘It is time to remove the [Confederate] flag from our capitol grounds’

Posted at 5:16 PM, Jun 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-22 17:17:41-04

SOUTH CAROLINA — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House.

“Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it is time to remove the flag from our capitol grounds,” said Haley, a Republican and the state’s first non-white governor, while flanked by a diverse group of South Carolina politicians.

“This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” she said.

The flag can only be removed from its location in front of the State legislature with the approval of two-thirds of that body. And Haley said if the state’s General Assembly doesn’t convene on the matter in this last week of the legislative year, she would call up lawmakers to the capital “under extraordinary measures.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina were also alongside Haley at the announcement that came amid growing calls for the state to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House.

The two senators did not speak at the announcement, though sources earlier in the day told CNN the pair were endorsing the decision to remove the flag from the state legislature’s grounds.

Graham said in a written statement after the news conference that “after the tragic, hate-filled shooting in Charleston, it is only appropriate that we deal once and for all with the issue of the flag.”

“In the worst of tragedies, we have seen the best of South Carolina. Today, I am urging that the Confederate battle flag be removed from statehouse grounds to an appropriate location,” Graham said the statement. “I hope that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition — and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward.”

The shift from the state’s top elected officials marks a momentous milestone in a decades-old debate that was reignited and quickly gained momentum in the wake of the deadly, racially motivated shooting that killed nine African-Americans last week.

Less than a week after the shooting, calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down have quickly snowballed from local officials and civil rights activists to the upper echelons of South Carolina politics.

“We cannot have the Confederate flag waving on the grounds of the state capitol,” NAACP president and South Carolina native Cornell William Brooks said Friday during a press conference. “That symbol has to come down. That symbol must be removed from our state capitol.”

The calls from top South Carolina politicians to take down the flag will quickly reach beyond the Palmetto State and into the politics of the 2016 presidential election.

GOP presidential candidates late last week hesitated to weigh in on whether the Confederate flag should remain on the grounds of the state legislature — a state that is home to an early and crucial primary contest — with most saying the decision was up to the people of South Carolina.

But cover from the heights of the South Carolina GOP political establishment quickly freed up the GOP presidential field to cut their tacit support of the Confederate flag’s presence on state property and instead back Haley’s decision.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, both popular in establishment circles, quickly expressed their support for Haley, hailing her calls for the flag’s removal as the right decision. Just days earlier, they had waffled on the question, deferring to the will of South Carolinians.

Graham, also a presidential candidate, may be credited with moving the needle as he spent the past few days quietly urging fellow South Carolina politicians to take action, the source close to Graham told CNN.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama will head to the state on Friday to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the state senator who was killed in the church shooting. Vice President Joe Biden will join Obama.

Local news outlets and a South Carolina politics blog reported Monday morning that Haley would call for the removal of the flag during the 4 p.m. news conference.

The debate took new meaning after images surfaced online of white supremacist and avowed church shooter Dylan Roof holding a Confederate flag and a gun. Roof, 21, confessed to law enforcement that he carried out the killing, telling them he wanted to start a “race war.”

Haley has previously rebuffed efforts to remove the flag from the grounds of the state legislature and has spoken out in support of the compromise in 2000 that saw the Confederate flag removed from the top of the state capital dome and moved to a memorial to Confederate soldiers just a few hundred feet away.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.