CHARLESTON, United States - South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley is leading escalating bipartisan calls 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 - 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 nine murders over the June 17 shooting rampage at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during a Bible study class.
"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 Monday, 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 adding momentum to see it removed from the state house.
As calls built for the flag to come down, 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 shelves.
Numerous US retailers offer Confederate flag items online and the banner is seen emblazoned on t-shirts, caps and trucks throughout the south.
'Symbol of hate'
"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.
"The Confederate battle flag years and years ago was appropriated as a symbol of hate," Riley said, saying it was used by racist groups 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," said 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 added to the chorus of 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 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 requires a decision by the Republican-dominated legislature by law, now in summer recess.
Republican Governor 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 Tuesday, 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.