By Seanna Adcox, Jeffrey Collins and Meg Kinnard
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Pressure on South Carolina Republicans to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds grew on Monday, days after a young white man who embraced the banner as a symbol of white power was charged with murdering nine people inside their historic black church.
State leaders held a flurry of meetings to figure out what to do. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has favored leaving the flag where it is, was meeting with lawmakers ahead of a news conference announced for Monday afternoon.
“Last week’s terrorizing act of violence shook the very core of every South Carolinian,” House Majority Leader Jay Lucas said in a statement. “Moving South Carolina forward from this terrible tragedy requires a swift resolution of this issue.”
A growing number of religious and political leaders said they would push for the flag’s removal Tuesday during a rally in the capitol. The White House said President Barack Obama respects the state of South Carolina’s authority to decide the issue, but believes the flag belongs in a museum.
“The flag got appropriated by hate groups We can’t put it in a public place where it can give any oxygen to hate-filled people,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a Democrat.
But the Republicans who have led South Carolina for a quarter-century have rebuffed many previous calls to remove the flag, and there’s no apparent consensus between them on how they should respond now.
The last governor to call for removing it, Republican David Beasley, was hounded out of office in 1998 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and they made sure his political career was over thereafter. Their influence doomed Beasley’s front-runner campaign for U.S. Senate, a seat that was won by Republican Jim DeMint.
The group announced Monday that it will vigorously fight any effort to remove the flag now.
Even some Democrats were wary.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, helped broker the compromise that moved the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome to a Confederate monument outside. That compromise in 2000 made it very difficult to make any other changes: A super-majority of two-thirds of both houses is required.
“There is no consensus of opinion” among senators, said Jackson, who urged the House to act first.
“It is my opinion – as someone who’s fallen on that sword before and shed blood and had the scars to prove it and the threats to prove it – I think the House should do it first. That’s the largest body. If the House is serious, send us a two-thirds ‘sine die’ amendment, and I think the Senate will do the right thing,” Jackson said.
The compromise has kept the Confederate flag flying high outside the Statehouse since the shooting, even after state and U.S. flags were lowered to half-staff to honor the victims.
It also means that when the state aims Wednesday to honor Emanuel’s slain senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, by welcoming thousands of people to file past his coffin inside the Statehouse, the mourners will likely see the Confederate flag on their way in or out.
This symbolism has angered many, particularly now that photos surfaced showing Dylann Storm Roof burning one American flag and stepping on another, while waving and posing provocatively with Confederate banners.
“Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate Banner,” South Carolina Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Leland Summers said in a statement. “There is absolutely no link between The Charleston Massacre and The Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one.”
At least one Republican said he wasn’t courageous enough to take a stand before, but the death of his friend Pinckney, who had served 19 years in the state House and Senate, changed that.
“I just didn’t have the balls for five years to do it,” said state Rep. Doug Brannon, who was elected in 2010.
“When my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds,” Brannon said. “It’s not just a symbol of hate, it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.”
The debate over the flag has been revived as thousands of people converged on Charleston to show their solidarity with the victims and join a mix of rallies, marches and funerals. Bells tolled across Charleston Sunday as the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened.
“It sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff, who led the first Sunday service since the killings at the historic church known as “Mother Emanuel.”
Thousands marched later Sunday on the city’s iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a 2-mile span with towering cable supports that is named after a former state lawmaker and vocal Confederate flag supporter. It is one of many symbols of white power that remain in South Carolina and can’t easily be changed because of the flag deal.
Less than 2 miles from Emanuel, someone vandalized a Confederate monument, spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” and “This is the problem. (hash) RACIST” in bright red paint. City workers covered the statue with a tarp.