South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Monday called on lawmakers to take down the Confederate battle flag in the state capitol, a week after a white gunman allegedly shot dead nine black worshipers at a historic church.
The flag at the State House grounds in Columbia became a fresh focus of criticism in recent days after the Charleston church massacre, which federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated terrorism by accused gunman Dylann Roof, 21.
"It's time to move the flag from the capitol grounds," Haley, a Republican, told reporters. The flag was a symbol of the pro-slavery South during the U.S. Civil War. "This is a moment in which we can say that the flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state."
The shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church came in a year of intense debate over U.S. race relations following the killings of unarmed black men by police officers, which has sparked a reinvigorated civil rights movement under the "Black Lives Matter" banner.
Opponents of flying the flag at the State House grounds consider it an emblem of slavery that has become a rallying symbol for racism and xenophobia in the United States. Supporters, who fly the flag at their homes, wear it on clothing and put it on bumper stickers, say it is a symbol of the South's history and culture, as well a memorial to the roughly 480,000 Confederate Civil War casualties. That figure includes the dead, wounded and prisoners.
A group of both black and white leaders called for a rally Tuesday at the State House in Columbia to bring their demand directly to lawmakers.
"The time has come to remove this symbol of hate and division from our state capitol," said Reverend Nelson Rivers, pastor of the Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina, ahead of Haley's remarks.
"Remove this symbol of divisiveness and even terrorism to some," said Rivers, who is black and works with the National Action Network civil rights group.
Roof was arrested on Thursday and charged with nine counts of murder for allegedly gunning down members of a Bible study group at the "Mother Emanuel" church after sitting with them for an hour on Wednesday night.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod, Luciana Lopez and Alana Wise; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)