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By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday reversed her position and called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the state Capitol.

The announcement comes after nine African-Americans were killed during a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.

“Today, we are here to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said, flanked by state leaders.

Haley joins a growing list of state and national political leaders and civil rights activists who say the flag is a racist symbol.

Religious and political leaders including Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said earlier Monday that they would push for the flag’s removal when the Legislature returns. Riley has led protest marches against the flag and has called for its removal from state grounds before.

“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,” Riley said at a televised news conference. The flag “was appropriated years and years ago as a symbol of hate,” Riley said, and should be moved to a museum.

Both of the U.S. senators from South Carolina joined in the call to take down the Confederate flag. Tim Scott, one of two African-Americans in the U.S. Senate and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, back its removal, according to sources familiar with their decisions.

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network said the flag should be removed before the body of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack, lies in state on Wednesday. Pinckney was also pastor of Emanuel AME.

Republicans, who control South Carolina’s state Legislature, have rebuffed many previous calls to remove the flag, which dates from the Civil War. For civil rights activists and many others, the flag is a racist symbol of the state’s slave past.

The flag has also been adopted by some white supremacist groups in modern times.

Defenders, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a social and political group in the South, insist the flag is a symbol of the state’s past and no longer carries the racist meaning.

“There is absolutely no link between the Charleston massacre and the Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one,” stated Leland Summers, South Carolina commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said the group would fight any plan to take down the battle banner.

While successfully running for her second term in 2014, Haley, a Republican, defended the Confederate flag’s presence on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. Her Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen called for the flag’s removal.

“I think the people of South Carolina are tired of having an image across America that’s not truly who we are,” Sheheen said during a debate, adding that everyone should “rally together under a flag that unites us all, the American flag, that looks toward the future, and not the past.”

Haley responded that the flag was a “sensitive issue” but she rejected the idea of removing it.

“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

Conceding that South Carolina had suffered an image problem in the past, Haley insisted that the state had moved beyond the past.

“But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian American female governor,” Haley said of herself. “When we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator, that sent a huge message.”

The issue has taken on a new force with the shooting at Emanuel AME on Wednesday. Dylann Roof, 21, is being held on nine counts of murder in the attack.

Last week, Haley said she believed that Roof should get the death penalty if convicted. She noted her own support for keeping the Confederate flag but added: “I think the state will start talking about that again, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters in the state marched to protest the flag’s placement in front of the Capitol.

NAACP President Cornell Brooks has also called for the removal of the flag, which was embraced by Roof in photographs that were posted online and became public in recent days.

“That symbol has to come down,” Brooks said last week, speaking at a televised news conference in Charleston. “That symbol must be removed from our state Capitol.”
Republican state Rep. Doug Brannon announced last week that he will introduce a bill to remove the flag when the Legislature convenes again.

“The switch that flipped was the death of my friend Sen. Pinckney. … I’ve been in the House five years. I should have filed that bill five years ago. But the time is now, I can’t let my friend the senator’s death go without fundamental change in South Carolina,” Brannon said Monday.

(Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story from Washington.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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