U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney said it took last week’s mass shooting in Charleston for him to appreciate the range of meanings the Confederate flag holds for different people.
The Indian Land Republican this week discussed the growing calls for removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. He said his initial reaction to demands for removing the flag was that the move would be an admission that the historic banner is a “symbol of hate.” He knows many South Carolinians vehemently disagree with that view.
“But in speaking with many people over the course of the last few days, it has become clear that the flag does in fact mean different things to different people in our state,” Mulvaney said in a statement issued late Tuesday. “And I blame myself for not listening closely enough to people who see the flag differently than I do. It is a poor reflection on me that it took the violent death of my former desk mate in the S.C. Senate, and eight others of the best the Charleston community had to offer, to open my eyes to that.”
Because of the different – “and very valid” – impressions of what the flag represents, “I admit that the flag has become a distraction: something that prevents us from talking about all that is good about South Carolina.”
That realization came when some of his African-American constituents reached out to him this past week about where they hoped he would come down on the flag issue.
Mulvaney, who represents the South Carolina 5th Congressional District, said he wasn’t politically active in 2000, when a compromise was reached to remove a Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse and to place one near the Confederate soldier’s monument just a few yards from the capitol’s north steps.
“I thought this discussion was over, that everybody, black and white, agreed with this,” Mulvaney said.
But when he heard others “express their concerns, it really registered with me for the first time, and I thank them for being comfortable enough to speak with me on that.”
Mulvaney has made a point of speaking to NAACP events during his public career. But, he says, the Confederate flag had never come up.
“The flag is not a federal issue,” he said. “People at those events were more likely to talk about unemployment or Medicare or other issues. There was no context in which this could be easily raised.”
He now says the flag should come down, but he expressed hope that the Legislature can craft a compromise similar to what was done in 2000. The compromise then also created created an African-American memorial on the Statehouse grounds.
“I want us to have a debate that is respectful of all sides,” he said. “I don’t want to yank the flag down summarily without having a discussion, and I hope now we’ll have that debate in the Legislature.”
Mulvaney said he had been asked by Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff to go to Columbia on Monday for a discussion of “great importance to the state.” He and his staff were unable to determine exactly what that issue was, and he kept to his regular schedule while the governor made the historic call to remove the flag. Joining her were some other members of the state’s Congressional delegation, including Republican Mark Sanford of Mt. Pleasant and Democrat Jim Clyburn of Columbia.
“It could have been about the Export-Import Bank for all I knew,” he said, referring to the current debate over whether the bank should be allowed to go out of business next week. “I hoped to be part of that discussion (about the flag), but in hindsight, it looks like the governor had already made up her mind.”
He hopes the focus can shift to the families of the nine people who died at Emanuel AME Church, and the outpouring of grief and support from around the state.
“If the flag has become an excuse for people to ignore things like that, then perhaps time has come for a change,” Mulvaney wrote in his statement. “Maybe with the flag removed, people will listen.”
Mulvaney served in the state Senate from 2008 until he was elected to Congress in 2010. In the Senate chamber, he sat next to Clementa Pinckney, the Ridgeland Democrat and Emanuel pastor who died in last week’s shooting.
The congressman credited Pinckney for the statements made Friday by the victims’ families during a hearing for Dylann Roof of Columbia, the man accused in the Emanuel church shootings.
“There’s probably a reason the families who attended his church had the faith, charity and forgiveness to say the things they said at that man’s bond hearing,” Mulvaney said. “Those are the people he ministered to. That’s his legacy. I hope five years from now, we don’t remember this as the time the flag came down, but for the superhuman level of compassion and forgiveness those people had. It’s because of Clementa that they had that mindset, that they had that faith.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062