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By Kelly O'Donnell

Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham told NBC News that it was the Sunday service at the predominantly black South Carolina church where nine people were killed that helped him conclude the Confederate flag needed to be removed from the state Capitol.

“The Sunday service closed the deal for me. I don't know how I would ever go back into that church and be able to justify denying their request to remove the flag. And it makes us all better at the end of the day,” Graham said in an interview Tuesday.

Graham acknowledged that if not for the deadly shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston, he and many others were not prepared to call for the removal of the Confederate flag at a war memorial at the state house. Graham said he has already heard from many angry South Carolinians who believe the flag represents part of the state’s history.

Graham said, “Everybody who says that flag means something to me is not a racist, but in the hands of this young man it was the ultimate symbol of racism.” Graham contends that murder suspect 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof corrupted the already controversial symbol so that it is no longer acceptable at a government site. “The flag now is owned by him. It's the flag of the murderer in our time, and the families represent the best of who we are. We owe it to them to honor their request to remove the flag.”

The political pressure to condemn the flag has been countered by angry pushback. Graham knows the outrage, “I'm hearing a lot of people -- the flag didn't kill anybody. You know, I fly this flag at my house, I haven't killed anybody.” His response is that this time, everything is different. Graham said, “You can think what you like about the flag, you can think what you like about me, but I am not going to be part of stopping the progress of my state.”