CHARLESTON, USA (UPDATED) – South Carolina's Republican Governor Nikki Haley led bipartisan calls Monday, June 22, for the removal of the controversial Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, after last week's deadly shooting at a black church in Charleston.
The contentious flying of the Civil War battle flag – seen by some as a symbol of lingering racist sentiment in the American South, but by others as a hallmark of Southern pride and heritage – has returned to the spotlight since the massacre.
A website apparently created by accused gunman Dylann Roof, 21, includes a manifesto embracing white supremacy and photographs of him holding a Confederate flag and a handgun.
Roof has been charged with 9 murders over the June 17 shooting rampage at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during a Bible study class.
One of the church massacre victims was Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was a Democratic state senator. The White House said Monday that President Barack Obama would deliver a eulogy for Pinckney in Charleston on Friday, June 26.
"Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it's time to move the flag from the capitol grounds," Haley told a press conference, flanked by a host of political leaders from both parties.
"One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come," she said, adding the flag "causes pain for so many."
The flag's 24/7 presence – alongside a memorial to Confederate war dead on the lush green State House lawn – has been a point of friction in South Carolina for years.
But after the killings at "Mother Emanuel," the flag – unlike the US and state flags – was not lowered to half-staff, sparking outrage and a revived movement to see it removed from the state house.
Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, announced it would remove all merchandise bearing the Confederate flag from its stores, saying such items had "improperly" found their way onto store shelves.
'Symbol of hate'
Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP
"The time has come for the Confederate battle flag to move from a public position in front of the state capitol to a place of history – the state museum, the Confederate museum," said Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, a Democrat.
"The Confederate battle flag years and years ago was appropriated as a symbol of hate," Riley said, arguing it was used by the Ku Klux Klan and others opposed to "equality among the races."
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott agreed that the flag "represents pain and oppression" for those who don't support it.
"It is time for the flag to come down," added Scott, the first black Republican congressman from the South since the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.
Presidential candidates for the 2016 race have also backed calls for removing the flag.
"I hope that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition – and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward," said Senator Lindsey Graham.
State senator Marlon Kimpson said he was prepared to bring legislation to remove the flag as early as Tuesday, June 23, and urged citizens to put pressure on their elected representatives.
"What we have to do is galvanize and use this window of opportunity in light of this horrible tragedy and come away with a solution and an agenda to rid this state of hate, division, and racism," he said at a news conference.
"I think that ridding the flag from the front of the statehouse is a start."
Removing the flag from the State House grounds by law requires a decision by the Republican-dominated legislature, now in summer recess.
Haley said she would call lawmakers back into session to debate the measure if they did not act to do so themselves.
"There will be a time for discussion and debate, but the time for action is coming soon," she said.
"My hope is by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony and honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven."
Over the weekend, several thousand protesters gathered at the legislative building in the state capital Columbia, demanding the battle flag be taken down.
Organizers called the event a "warm-up" for what they hope will be an even bigger anti-flag protest at the state house on July 4 – America's Independence Day holiday.
As of early Monday, more than half a million people had put their name to a petition launched by the left-leaning MoveOn.org activist group, calling for the flag to go. – Rappler.com