South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley calls for removal of Confederate flag from capitol grounds

Posted at 4:18 PM, Jun 22, 2015

(CNN) — 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.

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott 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.

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 will free up the GOP presidential field to cut their tacit support of the Confederate flag’s presence on state property, freeing them of an issue that could sting more as they look to appeal beyond their party’s conservative base.

Graham, a candidate for president, also stands to benefit as he positions himself ahead of the pack of his primary foes on the issue, reinforcing his tepid status as a South Carolina favorite son.

Graham won’t just be the first in the 2016 GOP pack to back the flag’s removal, but he may also 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.

Haley press secretary Chaney Adams confirmed in an email that Haley will deliver remarks at 4 p.m., but would not confirm reports that Haley will also call for the flag’s removal from the State capitol. Local news outlets and a South Carolina politics blog reported Monday morning that Haley will 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.

And Graham last week said in an interview with CNN that the Confederate flag is “part of who we are,” but said South Carolina needed to make sure that the 2000 compromise “works here.

Haley’s office would not preview her address this afternoon, instead telling reporters to stay tuned.