In the wake of a racially charged mass shooting that left nine African-American parishioners dead at a historically black church in Charleston, Republican South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday called for the Confederate flag outside the state capitol to be taken down.
“It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds,” Haley said to loud applause at a press conference, amid mounting pressure to remove the controversial flag following the massacre, which authorities have called a hate crime. Haley appeared at a press conference alongside other South Carolina leaders, including U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, all of whom support the removal of the flag.
“By removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are in heaven,” Haley added. The governor noted the state legislature, even though it’s currently not in session, planned to meet Tuesday for a separate budget matter. Haley said if the legislature did not make a plan to take up the flag issue, she’d use her “extraordinary circumstances” authority to call a special session over the summer.
Haley noted that for many in the state the “flag stands for traditions that are noble,” and said it would be respected on private property. But she added “for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” and should not be at the capitol.
Haley, who believes the admitted shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, should get the death penalty, had said before the shooting that there was no need to take down the Confederate flag. However, she told CBS’ “This Morning” last week that she hopes a conversation can be started with “thoughtful words to be exchanged,” adding, “I think the state will start talking about that again, and we’ll see where it goes.”
In tribute to the nine victims, flags on top of the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, were lowered to half staff on Thursday. The Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds, however, still flew at its regular level – which many critics deemed disrespectful.
Haley’s office said that while it has control over the state and American flags, the Confederate flag falls under the jurisdiction of the state legislature. Some state lawmakers have said they plan to introduce legislation to remove the Confederate flag as soon as possible.
To remove the flag, it would take a two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate, in addition to the approval of the governor. Those who support taking down the flag say it represents racial hatred and is a potent symbol of a time when slavery prevailed. Those who want to keep the emblem say it celebrates Southern culture and heritage, and not slavery and racism.
While the legislature doesn’t convene for its normal session until January, lawmakers plan to meet on Tuesday to discuss a separate budget conference report. During that time, there is likely to be a vote to hold a special session– again a two-thirds super majority would be required – as soon as possible to take up the flag issue, which could happen as early as next week, Democratic state Rep. James E. Smith told msnbc.
But taking down the flag could be easier said than done with the GOP – which has long defended, or at least tolerated, the flag – holding majorities in both legislative chambers. So far, just a handful of GOP lawmakers in the South Carolina House have publicly said they back taking down the flag from statehouse property.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, a Republican, told msnbc that he doesn’t think legislators should be so quick to vote on a measure to take down the flag. “It’s not good policy to make decisions on the cusp of something like this, a crime or a tragedy. We need to make good law on well thought-out decisions … We don’t need to move based on a tragedy, we need to heal from tragedy,” he said.
Pope said he wasn’t sure if there were enough votes to pass such a measure. And even if Haley does ask legislators to act, he said, “I don’t think that will necessarily send it one direction or another. There’s been a contentious relationship between the legislature and the governor this session. Her position will not necessarily be a driving force for many of the members.”
Similarly, Assistant House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said he prefers to hold off voting, adding that he doesn’t know how he would vote and wants time for “cooler heads to prevail.”
“It’s extremely unfortunate that the flag was desecrated in a way to be used as a hate symbol when in effect it’s not,” he argued. Still, Simrill said he was open to the idea of eventually revisiting the issue.
Others have urged for debate but have not indicated one way or another how they’d vote. For example, Republican House speaker Jay Lucas released a statement on Monday saying, ”Wednesday’s unspeakable tragedy has reignited a discussion on this sensitive issue that holds a long and complicated history in the Palmetto State. Moving South Carolina forward from this terrible tragedy requires a swift resolution of this issue.”
But Smith, who has been working to remove the flag since 2000, said the more time lawmakers have, the less likely they are to implement change.
Back in 2000, the legislature passed the so-called Heritage Act, a compromise that removed the flag from the top of the capitol but allowed it to remain on the grounds. Any type of new legislation will likely deal with changing that existing piece of legislation.
David Woodard, a Republican consultant in the state who is also a political science professor at Clemson University, said he doubted such legislation would pass. He pointed to the contentious debate in 2000, which he said led to several lawmakers not being re-elected. “The main lesson was, ‘well we’ll never touch that thing again,’” he said. Many in the state, he argued, see the shooting and the flag as two separate issues.
But with Haley – who is very popular among conservatives – pushing for the change, it could give lawmakers new impetus. Smith said he’s “cautiously optimistic” there are enough votes to take the flag down.
Smith – a former colleague of reverend and state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was killed in last week’s shooting – said he knew his friend would “want us to seize the moment,” just as lawmakers did in passing a measure that would equip police officers across the state with body cameras, weeks after the police shooting death of unarmed black South Carolina man Walter Scott
“When we passed the bill for body cameras, as much as we all hated and abhorred the circumstances of Walter Scott’s death, we knew this was a moment. This was the time where we could bring about unity and unity of purpose to bring about change. Clearly, this is the case here,” said Smith.