COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Thousands of people wrote to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley after she said the Confederate flag must come down in response to last year’s church shootings. Many were angered by her call, but some said the massacre changed their minds.
The Associated Press reached out to the writers of these emails and letters after the Republican governor’s office released 10,000 pages of documents last week in response to requests for public records from last summer’s flag debate.
Among them are poignant notes from flag supporters explaining how their thoughts evolved after a white man who celebrated the symbol was charged with gunning down nine black people at a Bible study.
The AP found Justin Hough in North Carolina, where he expanded on his feelings now that reactions to police killings threaten to provoke even more violence.
“It’s a tarnished, tattered image of the South,” Hough said. Southerners who don’t acknowledge that either don’t understand the impact, or are “just lying about what it says to other people.”
In his letter, Hough said he was a graduate of The Citadel military academy who once loved “the Confederate flag, singing Dixie and defending our right to say the N-word.”
“I came to understand,” he wrote, that “attaching southern pride to these relics of the past only served to solidify that the true beliefs of the south are the stereotypes of hatred, bigotry and racism.”
Describing himself as a white descendant of Confederate veterans, Hough told the AP that when he was growing up in rural Georgia, everyone used racial epithets and thought nothing of it. The Confederate flag was seen as part of their regional heritage, not a symbol of hate.
“It wasn’t the rebel flag,” he said. “It was southern culture.”
He said the hazing of a black Citadel cadet in the late 1980s made him realize that the symbol he respected could be harmful to others, and the church shootings made him even more convinced that it was time to let it go.
Many letter writers castigated Haley for trying to erase the memory of Confederate soldiers. Many others praised her decision as courageous.
The governor’s office redacted contact information and last names, but the AP managed to find some of the letter writers through the affiliations they mentioned. Hough wasn’t alone among dyed-in-the-wool southerners who said their feelings changed.
Randolph, of Myrtle Beach, said that as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he long supported keeping the flag in place — until the Charleston shootings.
“The murder of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney along with 8 other of my Christian Brothers and Sisters changed my heart,” Randolph wrote. “My Christian duty requires me to call for the removal of the Confederate Battle flag.”
When Haley first campaigned for governor in 2010, she joined the ranks of South Carolina politicians who said the issue had been settled for all time by a 2000 compromise that moved the banner from atop the capitol dome to a 30-foot pole near a Confederate soldier monument.
Running for re-election four years later, she said business executives considering whether to invest in South Carolina never mentioned the flag issue. She argued that “we really fixed all that” when voters elected her — an Indian-American — as the state’s first minority governor.
Then, photos of Dylann Roof posing with the battle flag emerged following the killings inside the historic Emanuel AME Church, fueling tough conversations nationwide over race relations and the legacy of Confederate symbols.
Just five days after the shootings, Haley said the flag must come down.
“The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand,” she said then. “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the Capitol grounds. It is, after all, a Capitol that belongs to all of us.”
Thousands gathered on July 10, 2015 to watch as the flag was furled and sent to climate-controlled storage at the Confederate Relic Room.
For some, passions have not cooled a year later.
White people advocating secession and wearing Confederate uniforms hoisted another battle flag up a temporary pole at the same spot on Sunday. Police kept them separate from Black Lives Matter activists who shouted “That flag is hate!”
Some letter writers described their journeys across the gulf between them.
“After years of not understanding, I now have embraced that the haters have taken over this flag for their own terrible causes,” wrote Miels from Charleston, recalling his student years at Clemson University. “I joined in the singing of Dixie and the waving of the Confederate flag, as ways to encourage school spirit, I suppose.”
“At the time, I never had racist thoughts,” he said. “Well, times have changed.”