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By Harriet McLeod, Luciana Lopez and Alana Wise
CHARLESTON/COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Monday called on lawmakers to take down the Confederate battle flag in the state capital, a week after a white gunman allegedly shot dead nine black worshipers at a historic church.
The flag that has flown at the State House grounds in Columbia for the past half century became a fresh focus of criticism in recent days after the Charleston church massacre, which federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime and an act of terrorism by accused gunman Dylann Roof, 21, who posed with the flag in photos posted online.
"It's time to move the flag from the capital grounds," Haley, a Republican, told a news conference in the state capital, about 100 miles (161 km) from the shooting.
"The flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state."
Haley called on lawmakers, whose normal legislative year wraps up this week, to address the issue over the summer and said she would order a special session if they did not.
The shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church came in a year of intense debate over U.S. race relations following the killings of unarmed black men by police officers, which has sparked a reinvigorated civil rights movement under the "Black Lives Matter" banner.
Opponents of flying the flag at the State House grounds consider it an emblem of slavery that has become a rallying symbol for racism and xenophobia in the United States. Supporters, who fly the flag at their homes, wear it on clothing and put it on bumper stickers, see it is a symbol of the South's history and culture, as well a memorial to the roughly 480,000 Confederate Civil War casualties. That figure includes the dead, wounded and prisoners.
A group of both black and white leaders called for a rally Tuesday at the State House in Columbia to bring their demand directly to lawmakers.
"The only flag we should be worried about is the U.S. flag," said Carl Smith, a 29-year-old black man, standing outside the church that was the site of the shooting. "Why would you support a flag that represents division instead of a flag that unites people?"
Roof was arrested on Thursday and charged with nine counts of murder for allegedly gunning down members of a Bible study group at the "Mother Emanuel" church. He is the apparent author of an online racist manifesto.
'NOT CURED' OF RACISM
President Barack Obama in a podcast posted online on Monday, said the killings showed the United States still had a long way to go in addressing racism, using an epithet to make his point.
"We're not cured of it," Obama told Marc Maron, host of the "WTF" podcast. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists."
Obama will attend Friday's funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor of the historic church, who was one of the nine people killed on Wednesday.
The debate is not a new one for South Carolina, which raised the flag over the State House in the early 1960s and moved it to its current location, on a lower flagpole on the capital grounds in 2000, a compromise at a time when some were calling for it to be retired.
A spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that honors southern Civil War soldiers, called the move premature.
"This is the very worst possible time to be considering historic changes," said Ben Jones, the group's spokesman and a former U.S. Representative from Georgia.
"Slavery, it ain't like it was a Southern sin," Jones said. "It was a national American sin. It built Wall Street and the American economy."
Earlier, South Carolina political and religious leaders called for action on the flag at a press conference in North Charleston, South Carolina, where a former police officer was charged with murdering a black civilian by shooting him in the back after he fled a traffic stop.
Several speakers said the flag's presence at the state's capital sent an unappealing message about South Carolina.
"Ridding the flag from the front of the State House is a start," said state Senator Marlon Kimpson, who is black. "But let me underscore this: It will not solve the racial divide in South Carolina."
Standing outside the church 47-year-old Tracy Garrett said she opposed taking the flag down.
"What happened here didn't happen because of the Confederate flag ... Once you take it down it will make more trouble," said Garrett, who is white. "The flag doesn't stand for racism or slavery."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)