Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday praised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's call to remove the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds, making him the final major GOP contender to weigh in on the issue.
"I think the flag is inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery — and particularly when people use it obviously for murder and to justify hatred so vicious that you would kill somebody — I think that that symbolism needs to end, and I think South Carolina is doing the right thing," Paul told radio station WKRO.
Paul had kept quiet on the topic in the days following the massacre at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black house of worship, that left nine people dead. A spokesman for the senator told the Washington Post on Monday that he was "out of pocket" and not available for comment.
“There have been people who have used [the flag] for Southern pride and heritage and all of that, but really ... to every African-American in the country it’s a symbolism of slavery to them," Paul said on WKRO. "And now it’s a symbol of murder for this young man, and so I think it’s time to put it in a museum."
While the other major candidates weighed in before Paul via statements and interviews, they carefully avoided taking a substantive position on the issue until Haley joined a bipartisan group of top state officials on Monday in calling on the legislature to take down the flag. Haley's move, which provided political cover for candidates wary of upsetting voters in the early primary state, garnered immediate praise former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Paul's absence from the debate was especially glaring given his unusual role in the party on matters of race. The senator has called on his party to aggressively court African-American votes and has put in major work on issues like criminal justice reform, which civil rights groups have made a top priority in recent years.
There's also an uncomfortable history for Paul, however: He gained national attention criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act during his 2010 Senate run (he later indicated his support for the law), and co-wrote a book with a radio shock jock, Jack Hunter— who dubbed himself the "Southern Avenger" and wore a Confederate flag mask. Paul also notably supported the presidential campaigns of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who has fiercely criticized Abraham Lincoln and published years of racially inflammatory newsletters.