WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Campaigning in South Carolina, where residents are still reeling from a white gunman's massacre of nine black churchgoers, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush told voters Monday that he removed the Confederate battle flag from the Florida Capitol grounds in 2001 when he was governor.
Bush told about 100 employees of a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant outside Columbia that the banner has been a "racist symbol" in "recent, modern times," though "not perhaps at the beginning."
He said he brought up the flag in an earlier, private meeting Monday with dozens of black pastors.
Bush made his first campaign appearance since 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof was charged with killing the pastor and eight parishioners at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photos distributed since the killings show the alleged gunman flaunting the battle flag. Authorities say Roof admitted he wanted to start a race war.
Bush did not bring up the murders or the flag until he was asked about the matter by an employee of Nephron Pharmaceuticals. He praised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for her call to lower the battle flag that remains alongside a Confederate monument in front of her state's Capitol and to remind the assembly what he did more than a decade ago by executive action. Haley's proposal will require legislative approval.
Bush said he decided to send the flag in Florida to a museum "where our heritage can be respected" while recognizing that the banner is among "symbols that have divided the South" for generations.
"If you're trying to lean forward rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreement, so I did," he said, concluding with, "You can clap, brother."
Bush is among the Republican presidential contenders who did not weigh in on what South Carolina should do about the flag after the shootings. He merely said state leaders would "do the right thing." Once Haley made her decision, he and other rivals praised it.
He said he attributes such mass killings to people who "feel disconnected" from the rest of society and, in "many cases," suffer from mental illness. He opposes new gun restrictions.
South Carolina, which holds the South's first presidential primary, is among the last states with a Confederate banner on Capitol grounds, though nearly every state of the Old South has some monument or homage to the Confederacy on prominent display.
Jeb Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, won a bitter primary battle here in 2000, when both he and Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended South Carolina's right to fly the banner atop the Capitol dome. A compromise shortly after led to its more distant placement on the grounds. McCain has since expressed regret that he endorsed the flag at all.
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