Victims’ families, church visit drove Haley to call for flag’s removal

After a racially motivated massacre at a historic African-American church in Charleston last week, Gov. Nikki Haley said she would welcome a debate about removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

But that debate should wait until after the funerals for the nine victims.

By Monday, Haley had changed her mind, inviting about 30 Republican and Democratic lawmakers and political leaders to join her at the State House and call on lawmakers to furl the flag as soon as possible.

Haley said her sense of urgency was propelled by the victims’ families, who expressed love and forgiveness to the accused shooter, and the strength and grace on display when Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened Sunday, a service that Haley and her family attended.

During the church service, Haley said her two children “saw what true faith looks like.”

“My children saw that true hate can never, never triumph over true love,” the Republican governor told a press conference Monday. “My children saw the heart and soul of South Carolina start to mend.”

It was then that Haley decided that “making a statement now would help the state’s healing process,” spokesperson Chaney Adams said.

The call for the flag’s removal is a transformation for Haley.

In a gubernatorial debate last year, Haley brushed away the flag issue as irrelevant, saying corporate executives never had complained to her about the banner. Haley also touted the state’s racial progress, citing her election as governor – the daughter of Indian immigrants and the state’s first female governor – and that of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, the first African-American to represent South Carolina in the Senate.

While Democrats scoffed at Haley’s remarks then, they praised her Monday for calling for the flag’s removal.

Haley “is doing something against the political grain for her party, and she’s doing it for the right reason,” said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, adding his respect for Haley has grown “ten-fold.”

“For that, I applaud her and thank her for her courage and ... leadership,” Harrison said.

Others saw more personal reactions at work in Haley’s announcement Monday.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said Haley, the mother of two, was moved by last Wednesday’s tragedy. The governor choked back tears at a Thursday press conference and was moved by the community’s response.

The scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle also was wearing on the state as it shifted from the horror of the church massacre to focus on the State House flag, a complex, emotional issue that divides South Carolinians and subjects them to scorn from outsiders.

“The world and the nation (are) telling us, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Malloy said.

Haley’s rallying of lawmakers to remove the flag “sends a message,” Malloy added. “Somebody’s got to break that chain of hate.”

A long-fought battle

The General Assembly’s removal of the flag would end a long, bitterly fought battle over whether the divisive symbol should continue to fly on state property.

After 15 years of sometimes-uneasy dormancy, the issue flared into a national debate when a gunman joined a Bible study Wednesday at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and, after sitting with the group for about an hour, opened fire, killing nine.

Dylann Roof, 21, of rural Richland County was arrested Thursday. Law enforcement officials said Roof confessed to the slayings, which authorities immediately called a hate crime. Subsequently, racist rants, allegedly written by the suspect, were found online with pictures of Roof, a Confederate flag and a handgun.

Haley’s press conference Monday also drew national attention.

Among those in attendance was Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. The flag, Priebus said, “hurts a lot of people,” adding, “It’s time to focus on the things that unify us, not divide us.”

Call to action, time of healing

“The murderer, now locked up in Charleston, said he hoped his actions would start a race war,” Haley told a packed State House lobby.

But, she added, the response of South Carolinians was the opposite — an “outpouring of love and support.”

“My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move our state forward in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in Heaven,” she said.

Haley acknowledged the conflicting history the flag has in the state.

The shooter is a “hate-filled murderer who ... has a sick and twisted view of the flag,” she said. “In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere (the flag).”

Supporters see the flag as a “symbol of respect, integrity and duty” — a “memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during a time of great conflict” — not as a symbol of hate or racism, she said.

“At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” she said.

While some S.C. residents will see the flag’s removal “as a sad moment,” Haley said “the flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state. ...

“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 a something we cannot stand. The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the Capitol grounds – it is, after all, a Capitol that belongs to all of us.”

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658