WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush called the Confederate flag a “racist” symbol on Monday, lauding South Carolina’s efforts to remove it from the Capitol and pointing to a similar move he made as Florida’s governor.
“The symbols were racist,” Bush said, responding to a question about the flag from an African-American employee while on tour at Nephron Pharmaceuticals Plant in West Columbia.
It was his first visit to the Palmetto State since the racially motivated shootings of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church on June 17.
Bush said during his tenure as Florida governor, which ended in 2007, he watched as Georgia debated removing a Confederate flag on its state premises and it “dawned on me” that Florida similarly displayed those flags.
“I decided to do something politically incorrect” and remove the flags, he said.
Bush’s comments come as southern states consider removing the flag — which many view as a symbol of slavery and racism — from government grounds. Alabama pulled four Confederate flags down, while Mississippi is considering changing its state flag, which incorporates the Confederate imagery, and Tennessee could ditch license plates that include the flag.
Bush said the flag has “divided the South in many ways.”
“If you’re trying to lean forward rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreements, and so I did,” he said.
He praised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for “more or less doing the same thing under a lot of pressure” in the wake of the Charleston shootings.
Haley and other South Carolina politicians called for the flag to be removed from a monument at the state’s capitol last week.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks praised Bush’s comments on Monday, saying in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “Jeb Bush is right on point.”
In the wake of the shootings, Bush canceled one campaign stop in Charleston. He also drew criticism for saying immediately after the massacre that he wasn’t sure about the shooter’s motives.
“I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” Bush said then at a Faith and Freedom Coalition summit in Washington. That day he also told The Huffington Post that the shootings appeared racially motivated.