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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol Monday, less than a week after a 21-year-old white man gunned down nine people at a historic African American church.
Support for the flag to come down from leaders around the state and around the country has been steadily growing in the wake of the devastating attack.
"Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds," Haley said during a news conference attended by Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, along with other state leaders.
The announcement was met by applause and cheers from those in attendance.
The flag wasn't lowered to half-staff along with the other flags at the Statehouse after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Wednesday because doing so is under the authority of the state's General Assembly — and so is taking it down.
Authorities have said the shooting was a hate crime, and a white supremacist website that may be linked to the shooter, Dylann Roof, has images that apparently show him holding the Confederate battle flag.
The General Assembly's session ended on June 4, but lawmakers are meeting Tuesday to pass a budget compromise, at which point they can vote on extending the session to debate the removal of the Confederate flag. A decision to continue the session would take two-thirds of the vote, as would passing legislation to take down the flag.
If they don’t, Haley said she would use her authority to call them back into session to debate on the flag.
"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,” Haley said. "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.”
The call for action is a departure from Haley’s original stance on the flag. “Outside groups are free to voice their concerns and problems with it, but revisiting this issue is not part of the governor's agenda," her spokesman, Doug Mayer, told the Post and Courier in 2013. And when Haley ran for re-election last year, she said the flag wasn’t an issue.
Senators Scott and Graham quickly announced their agreement with Haley's new position.
“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,” Graham said in a statement after the news conference.
"I believe it is time for the flag to come down," Scott echoed, adding that he hoped the "General Assembly will move to this topic swiftly, so that our state can continue to move forward."
Political and religious leaders in the state urged lawmakers to vote to remove the flag as early as Tuesday in tribute to the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"This act will do something very personal," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said on Monday.
"Take away Mr. Roof’s symbol of misguided idea of racial superiority and bigotry. Take it away from him and all like him and give the front of our state Capitol equally and fairly to every citizen of South Carolina," he said.
Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, a National Action Network and NAACP official, called for the flag to come down before Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was a state senator, lies in state on Wednesday. He was the pastor of Emanuel AME and one of the nine victims of Wednesday's shooting.
"We should not go another week with that symbol of hate that was adored by the man who killed them to sit in front of the people's house," Rivers said.
The leaders, including Chairman of the Charleston County Council J. Elliott Summey, Senator Marlon Kimpson (D-Charleston), North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and National Action Network state President Elder James Johnson, also called for residents to meet in front of the Statehouse Tuesday to urge the General Assembly to vote to take the flag down.
President Barack Obama believes the Confederate flag "should be taken down and placed in a museum where it belongs," but realizes that the decision is a state issue, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during Monday's press briefing.
“This will be South Carolina’s decision,” Haley said Monday, but presidential candidates and other leaders have been weighing in on the issue.
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called for the removal of the flag Monday, and presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker commended Haley’s announcement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement, “the time for a state to fly [the Confederate flag] has long since passed.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for the flag to come down Monday, and Mitt Romney asked South Carolina lawmakers in a tweet Sunday to “remove it now.”
The flag flew over the Capitol dome itself until 2000. Under a compromise, it was removed, and another version of the flag was hoisted atop a 30-foot flagpole in front of the Statehouse.