Charleston - South Carolina's governor declared Monday that the Confederate flag should be removed from the Statehouse grounds as she acknowledged that its use as a symbol of hatred by the man accused of killing nine black church members has made it too divisive to display in such a public space.
Also read: Obama warns racist legacy still haunts US
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's about-face comes just days after authorities charged Dylann Storm Roof, 21, with murder. The young white man appeared in photos waving Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags, and purportedly wrote of fomenting racial violence. Survivors told police he hurled racial insults during last Wednesday's attack.
"The murderer now locked up in Charleston said he hoped his actions would start a race war. We have an opportunity to show that not only was he wrong, but that just the opposite is happening," she said, flanked by Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites who joined her call.
"My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move our state forward in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in Heaven," Haley said.
The massacre inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has suddenly made removing the flag long thought politically impossible in South Carolina the go-to position, even for conservative Republican politicians.
Haley was flanked by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, now running for president, as well as South Carolina's junior senator, Tim Scott, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, both of whom are black. Within moments, her call was echoed by the chairman of the Republican National Committee and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The governor's declarations sparked action in other arenas as well on Monday: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, becoming the first top-tier Republican to do so. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, ordered the replacement of vanity license plates depicting the Confederate flag, saying the banner is "hurtful" to too many people.
In Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans called for the removal of a bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from an alcove outside the Senate's chambers.
And retail giant Wal-Mart announced Monday that it is removing any items from its store shelves and website that feature the Confederate flag.
Haley urged the state's Republican-led legislature to debate the issue no later than this summer. If not, she said she will call a special session and force them to resolve it. "I will use that authority for the purpose of the legislature removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds," she said.
South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said he's confident after talking to members of both parties that the Confederate flag will be taken down within the next two months.
Lawmakers have proposed moving it to the state-run Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.
Making any changes to the banner requires a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the South Carolina legislature under the terms of a 15-year-old deal that moved it from atop the Statehouse to a position next to a monument to Confederate soldiers out front.
The last governor who called for the flag's removal, Republican David Beasley, was hounded out of office in 1998 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, effectively ending his political career.
"Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate Banner," the group's South Carolina commander, Leland Summers, said in a statement. "There is absolutely no link between The Charleston Massacre and The Confederate Memorial Banner. Don't try to create one."
Haley acknowledged there are very different views about what it symbolizes.
"For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble," she said. "The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect, and in many ways, revere it."
For many others, "the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past," she said.
South Carolina can survive and thrive "while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser," she said. "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 governor's announcement came as civil rights groups planned days of marches and protests against the Confederate flag that Roof embraced.
The Confederate battle flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in the 1960s as an official protest of the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to the grounds in 2000, as part of a compromise between a group of black lawmakers and the Republicans who have controlled South Carolina for a quarter-century.
That deal kept it flying high since the shooting, even as state and U.S. flags were lowered to honor the victims. It also means that when thousands of mourners honor Emanuel's slain senior pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, they will likely see the Confederate flag before or after filing past his coffin in the Statehouse.
The White House said President Barack Obama respects the state of South Carolina's authority to decide the issue, but believes the flag belongs in a museum. Obama knew Pinckney personally, and plans to deliver his eulogy in Charleston on Friday.