CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Demands that the Confederate flag be removed from the South Carolina State Capitol grounds have grown louder in the aftermath of the massacre of nine people in Charleston's most prominent black church earlier this week. At a vigil for the dead Friday, several speakers demanded the stars and bars be struck for good.
"We will take that flag DOWN," said Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and a top official with civil rights group, the National Action Network. Rivers pounded on his podium to punctuate the point, setting off a round of applause — one of many for anti-Confederate flag rhetoric Friday.
Later that evening, state Rep. Norman "Doug" Brannon, a Republican from Spartanburg, announced on MSNBC that he planned to introduce a bill to take down the flag from the statehouse. Brannon didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.
The issue has taken on renewed resonance in Charleston following the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, the nation's oldest black church south of Baltimore. The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, allegedly made racially inflammatory statements as he gunned down members of the church. When Roof was finally apprehended in North Carolina on Thursday, his car had a Confederate-flag novelty license plate.
In a state that celebrates its heritage as the first state to secede from the Union, many critics have connected the white supremacist ideology that allegedly drove Roof to kill with South Carolina's unapologetic nostalgia for the old Confederacy. The flag was ultimately removed from the capitol's dome in 2000 as part of a political compromise, but it still flies in front of the State Capitol building. The NAACP called for a tourism boycott of the state until the flag was taken down.
The issue has been revisited many times over the years, but with no resolution, and South Carolina has subsequently nursed a reputation as being friendly to Confederate sympathizers.
"There was a horrible fight about taking this flag down," said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. "It's so terribly contentious here that I don't see anybody [in political office] wanting to touch that thing again."
The meaning of the Confederate flag itself is a subject of considerable and long-running controversy. Its defenders say the flag is a benign symbol of Southern heritage, while its detractors see it as embodying slavery, secession, and white supremacy.
In 2000, an inquiry by the Georgia state government found that displays of the flag had been largely limited to commemorations of Confederate war dead until the 1940s, when it began evolving into "a symbol of resistance to federally enforced integration." According to the report, South Carolina did not raise the Confederate flag above its state capitol until 1962.
The Confederate flag still has its supporters in South Carolina. One of the biggest is Glenn McConnell, president of the College of Charleston and a well-known Civil War re-enactor who once called removing the flag from the Statehouse "cultural genocide."
"Some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by, a symbol of heritage and not hate," NAACP President Cornell Brooks said at a televised news conference. "But where we see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate, as a tool of hate, as an inspiration for hate, as an inspiration for violence, that symbol has to come down."
Earlier Friday night, thousands of mourners somberly filed into the TD Arena on the campus of the College of Charleston, a half-mile from Emanuel AME, known locally as "Mother Emanuel" for its history and prominence even among the city's many historic black churches.
The event was supposed to feature prayers, hymns, scripture readings, and a few brief — but hopeful — remarks from local political officials and religious leaders. But it didn't take long for the program to go off-script, starting with state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who filled in for the absent U.S. Rep James Clyburn.
Kimpson mentioned rallying another effort to take down the flag, drawing an ovation from a previously funereal crowd.
Keeping it going was Rivers, who presided over the ceremony. Rivers praised Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley for organizing a five-day protest walk from Charleston to Columbia to protest the flag's removal in 2000.
"That's when I knew he'd be my mayor for as long as he wanted to be mayor," Rivers said, drawing laughter from the audience.
When the event was over, Rivers pressed even harder on the issue.
"We should not honor the worst of our state," Rivers told BuzzFeed News. "They say that it's 'heritage not hate.' But you know what I tell them? 'Your heritage is hate.'"
Also at the vigil were U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who sat on the floor of the arena among the crowd.
Graham mostly repeated earlier comments claiming the decision to remove the flag should be left to the state, saying, "To the extent that this debate helps us move forward, let's have it. But don't let this issue become an excuse for" Roof.
Scott declined to comment to BuzzFeed, saying "I'm not really having a political conversation about the issue. I think we should have more conversation about the family."
He later elaborated in a series of tweets, finishing with, "we will have many conversations over the coming days and weeks,& the placement of the Confederate flag will certainly be one of those topics."
On Saturday, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went to Twitter to call for the removal of the flag — one of the strongest repudiations of the Confederate symbol from one of the nation's most prominent conservatives.