Charleston (United States) (AFP) - Flags were flying at half-staff Thursday in South Carolina after the cold-blooded killing of nine black people in an historic African-American church in Charleston -- with one notable exception.
Outside the legislature in the state capital Columbia, the racially divisive Confederate battle flag still flies high, renewing debate over its symbolism more than 150 years after the Civil War defeat of the slave-holding rebel South.
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white male suspected of carrying out the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church bloodbath, was one of many southern Americans who identified with the 13-star saltire in red, white and blue.
In a photo posted on Twitter by a South Carolina television journalist Thursday, Roof is seen astride a 1990s Hyundai sedan that bears a "Confederate States of America" ceremonial bumper tag that prominently features the flag.
Roof was apprehended Thursday in North Carolina in the same vehicle and returned to Charleston to face charges.
By coincidence, the US Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 5-4 that Texas did not violate the Constitution's free-speech provision when it denied a request from the 30,000-member Sons of Confederate Veterans group for a state-approved Confederate flag license plate.
- 'Sad day' -
"This is a sad day for the First Amendment and for mutual respect and bridge-building among Americans of different viewpoints," the organization said in a statement.
Others focused outrage on the South Carolina state house, where the Confederate flag remained at full height even as the US and South Carolina flags were lowered in mourning.
"Moral cowardice requires choice and action," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, blogged on Thursday. "Take down the flag. Take it down now."
Alas, that's easier said than done. By law, state officials say, only the entire South Carolina legislature can decide if and when the flag can be lowered.
One of the victims of Wednesday's attack on the Emanuel church's evening Bible class was its senior pastor Clementa Pinckney, 41, a state senator since 2000 and a lower-house member before that.
Supporters of the Confederate flag consider it a valued token of enduring Southern pride and heritage, while critics see it as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.
- 'Regardless of race' -
"The Confederate Battle Flag represents all Southern, and even Northern, Confederates regardless of race or religion and is the symbol of less government, less taxes and the right of the people to govern themselves," says Dixie Outfitters, a Virginia-based retailer of Confederate-themed merchandise.
A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center in 2011 indicated that nine percent of Americans felt positive upon seeing the Confederate flag, against 30 percent who said they reacted negatively and 58 percent who felt neither way.
But among blacks, 41 percent told Pew said they reacted negatively to the sight of the flag -- such is its power to invoke the memory of antebellum slavery and the decades of harsh racial segregation that followed the Civil War.
Sentiments are even stronger in South Carolina, where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. (The city itself was the American capital of the transatlantic slave trade, with 40 percent of enslaved Africans passing through it.)
In a 2014 poll for the State newspaper in Columbia, three out of four white South Carolina residents said the Confederate flag should keep flying outside the state house -- compared to 61 percent of blacks who wanted to see it go.
- Banned in California -
In California, since January this year, the Confederate flag cannot be displayed by state authorities, under a law initiated by a black state legislator whose mother once came across the banner for sale in a state house gift shop.
Mississippi, on the other hand, remains the only state that features the Confederate saltire on its official state flag, where it appears in the canton. An attempt to change it was soundly defeated in a 2001 referendum.
The Anti-Defamation League, best known for tackling anti-Semitism, says the Confederate flag is popular among white supremacists in both the United States and abroad.
But it adds on its website: "Because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature. The symbol should only be judged in context."