MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. Robert Bentley said removing four Confederate flags from the state Capitol was the "right thing to do" and that the state didn't need to go through a fight over the banners.
"It's so important that we present an image in Alabama that things are different today than they were in 1963," Bentley said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bentley said he stood behind his decision to remove the flags last week. Bentley said he wanted to head off controversy about the flags in Alabama, saying a fight would be a distraction in a state trying to lure companies from the across the nation and the globe to locate to the Deep South state.
The governor said he understands people are divided over the flag. Some see it as history. Others as hate. But he said avoiding a fight was best for all Alabamians.
"I understand how people feel about the flag," Bentley said. "But I also know, unfortunately, some hate organizations have co-opted that battle flag, and so by doing that, it is a symbol of hate and bigotry to a lot of people in our state, both black and white."
Calls to remove Confederate symbols that dot the South reignited after the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a black church in South Carolina. Authorities say the white suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.
The four flags, including the iconic Confederate battle flag of a blue X on a field of red, since 1994 flew next to a century-old monument to Confederate soldiers on the Alabama Capitol grounds.
The governor made the decision quickly last week, as attention shifted from South Carolina to other southern states.
Hours after the flags came down, Bentley announced that Google planned to convert an old coal-burning power plant in Alabama into a sleek $600 million data center. The decision to take the flags down had nothing to do with the Google announcement, but the governor said economic development was part of the reason to avoid a fight.
"I want companies from other parts of the world to see Alabama in a different light than what they study about in the history books," Bentley said. "Feeding families is a lot more important to them then whether the Confederate battle flag flies over that monument out there."
Former Gov. George C. Wallace in 1963 ordered the battle flag hoisted over the Capitol dome during a fight with the federal government over ending school segregation. Gov Jim Folsom ordered that the flag taken down 20 years later. However, the flags were placed at the monument in 1994.
Bentley drew both praise and scorn for his decision.
A crowd of about 300 gathered outside the Alabama Capitol last Saturday to protest the removal of the flags they saw as a banner of southern pride.
"Once these flags come back up, they will never take them down again. Mr. Bentley, you wanted a fight on your hands, you got one now buddy," Andy Bodenheimer told the crowd.
State Sen. Hank Sanders — one of 14 African-American legislators, arrested for trespassing in 1988 when they tried to yank down a Confederate flag that flew atop the Alabama Capitol dome — praised Bentley. Sanders called for other symbols of the Confederacy to come down, but Bentley said he would not support removal of all vestiges of the Confederacy. The statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis will stay, he said.
"We're not going to do that, because that is our history," Bentley said.