Since its first display as a show of defiance during the civil rights era, the placement of a Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds in South Carolina has divided the state’s Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites.
But on Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley and other leading officials called for the flag’s removal, a striking show of unity spawned by the deaths of nine people in a black church last week during a massacre whose white suspect embraced the flag as a symbol of his racist ideology.
“The hate-filled murderer has a sick and twisted view of the flag,” Haley said at a news conference alongside more than a dozen Republicans and Democrats, adding, “We have changed through the times and we will continue to do so, but that doesn’t mean we forget our history.”
The governor’s sudden declaration came as Republican presidential candidates struggled to keep from becoming embroiled in a long and potentially damaging debate over the painful legacy of racism from some in their party’s ranks.
Haley’s announcement stunned some observers who had watched Republicans in South Carolina — the first to secede from the Union at the start of the Civil War — largely defend the flag as a symbol of state history and pride.
“I’m pretty blown away,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. “Coming from the tragedy in Charleston and I think there’s just a recognition by a lot of folks on the right of just how hateful this flag and this symbolism is for 30% of the population.”
The move comes amid a larger and potentially problematic debate for the GOP. The Charleston church shooting fed into a continuing conversation about race relations in the U.S., police treatment of African Americans and economic disparity that has steadily intensified over the last year, starting with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer and the protests that followed.
Democrats used the Charleston massacre as an example of enduring bigotry and focused on the flag as an example. On Tuesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton is slated to travel to Missouri to meet with civic and religious leaders near Ferguson. President Obama, in an interview posted Monday, declared bluntly that “we’re not cured” of racism and used a racial epithet in his explanation.
“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not,” said Obama, who will deliver the eulogy Friday at the funeral of the Charleston church’s pastor, the first to die at the gunman’s hands. “It’s not just a matter of overt racism. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 2- to 300 years prior.”
Meanwhile, Republicans trying to win back the White House next year struggled to find ways to discuss the issue without inflaming the white conservatives in their base who either believe that talk of racism is overblown or are resentful of outsiders passing judgment on local cultural symbols like the Civil War-era banner.
That back-and-forth played out on the campaign trail, where more than a dozen Republican candidates are scrambling to court voters in the party’s base.
The front-runners for the party’s nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, delicately said they believed the flag should go, but declined to directly call on the state’s leaders to take it down. Bush emphasized that the discussion should take place within South Carolina.
That conversation happened faster than expected — and appeared to be coordinated with the party’s national leaders. A tweet from 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney decrying the flag on Saturday served as a sort of trial balloon. Other Republicans followed suit in rapid succession Monday, culminating in the news conference with Haley, South Carolina U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, and a statement from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“This flag has become too divisive and too hurtful for too many of our fellow Americans,” Priebus said. “While some say it represents different things to different people, there is no denying that it also represents serious divisions that must be mended in our society.”
The shift of sentiment about the flag spread quickly. In Mississippi, the Republican speaker of the state House issued a statement saying the time had come to consider changing the state’s flag, which has incorporated the Confederate battle flag since 1894. And Wal-Mart said it would no longer sell merchandise featuring the flag.
The Republican Party has vowed to reach out to a more diverse group of voters this presidential race, and strategists say focusing on divisive social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and access to birth control will hobble that effort. The flag fits into that category. In 2012, 98% of voters in South Carolina’s GOP primary were white.
The gap between black and white South Carolinians on the issue is striking. Seventy-three percent of whites surveyed in November said they wanted the flag to continue to fly at the Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds, and 60% of blacks said it should be taken down, according to a Winthrop University poll.
“There are a lot of Republican elected officials that are just weary of seemingly defending old values,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. “… They’ve fought the same war over and over on the Confederate flag and some of these social issues. The shooting was so horrific, I guess some just decided it’s not worth continuing the fight anymore.”
Defenders, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a social and political group in the South, vowed to continue the fight. The flag is a symbol of the state’s past and no longer carries a racist meaning, said Leland Summers, the group’s South Carolina commander.
“There is absolutely no link between the Charleston massacre and the Confederate memorial banner,” he said of the flag. “Don’t try to create one.”
This isn’t the first time the flag has sparked outrage. In 2000, protests led to the flag’s removal from the Capitol dome and its placement near the Confederate memorial in front of the statehouse. A monument to African Americans was added.
Republicans’ trouble with courting black voters, however, goes far beyond the Confederate flag. Fringe racist elements in the party’s base remain, along with the difficulty they pose for mainstream candidates.
On Monday, three GOP presidential candidates said they would forfeit campaign donations from a white supremacist whose website apparently inspired Dylann Roof, the suspect in the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said they would return or donate to charity the campaign contributions from Earl Holt III, leader of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Holt’s group was cited in an online manifesto believed to have been written by Roof, the 21-year-old man charged in the slayings.
The manifesto credited the group’s website with alerting Roof to the problem of “brutal black-on-white murders.” Holt’s group says it opposes “all efforts to mix the races of mankind ... and to force the integration of the races.”
Holt said the group does not condone the slayings. The council “does not advocate illegal activities of any kind, and never has,” he said in a statement.
The body of the slain pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, is to lie in state at the Capitol on Wednesday. Some have advocated that the flag be removed before then, but it is unlikely to happen that quickly.
The Legislature is in session to approve the state budget, but a change to the flag’s position appears to require a two-thirds majority in both chambers. House Minority Leader J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat from Columbia, predicted in an interview Monday that a bill would be introduced either this week or eventually over the summer. “The flag’s time in South Carolina is limited,” Rutherford said.
Haley said that if lawmakers fail to resolve the issue this summer, she’ll call a special session to get them to remove the flag.
But it remains to be seen whether state lawmakers will yield to outside pressure, said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist with decades of political experience in the South.
“South Carolinians really don’t like being told what to do by Northeastern or West Coast liberals, or Northeast or West Coast conservatives, for that matter,” said Ayres, who also works as Rubio’s pollster. “Trying to dictate to them from out of the state is the least likely way to make something change.”
Hennessey reported from Washington and Muskal from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.