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Murders In Charleston Reignite Efforts To Abolish Symbols Of Confederacy Nationwide

As South Carolina inches toward taking down the Confederate battle flag from state Capitol grounds, a push is underway across the United States to remove symbols of the Confederacy.

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A park in Baltimore. A statue at a university campus in Texas. An entire Southern state's flag. These seemingly disparate items scattered across the United States have long been bound together by their enduring ties to the Confederacy — and the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and hurt such ties have in turn prompted in many people.

Then last week, nine black people were gunned down inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by a 21-year-old white man who appears to have a history of using Confederate symbols to espouse racist hate.

After days of grief and soul-searching in her state, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called Monday for the Confederate flag to be removed from state Capitol grounds. Her decision, though, has been felt across the country and represents a watershed moment that is providing unprecedented momentum in the effort to remove symbols of the Confederacy from American public life.

Two prominent state legislators in Mississippi on Monday also called for Confederate symbols to be removed from their state flag.

"The [Confederate] flag has always had such an ugly past and an ugly history. None of this is new. It’s just the mindset of the people in the South that’s changing," Mississippi state Sen. Kenneth Wayne Jones told BuzzFeed News on Monday. "But I think the time is now to change our flag."

The only black member of Mississippi's delegation in Congress, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, added to the chorus on Wednesday, introducing a resolution requiring that any state flag showing the Confederate battle emblem be removed from government grounds and shipped to the Library of Congress. As the only state in the union with a flag that depicts the Confederate battle flag, the resolution would on impact Mississippi, the Associated Press reported.

Although seven Southern state flags contain symbols associated with the Confederacy, Mississippi's is by far the most obvious. The state flag, which was adopted in 1894, features the iconic Confederate battle flag in its upper left corner. In a 2001 referendum, voters overwhelmingly elected to retain the divisive symbol, which for many people, especially African-Americans, is seen as a pro-slavery emblem.

"It's a problem for every African-American in Mississippi that that is what's flying over our state," said Jones, who is also the chair of the state legislative black caucus. "At that time [in 2001] it was a very emotional issue, but I think if we put everyone at the table now with the right mindset of moving our state forward ... you should be able to come up with something that doesn't offend anyone and still captures the historical impact of the Civil War."

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn also called for conversations to begin on changing the flag, telling reporters in a statement that, as a Christian, “I believe our state’s flag needs to be removed.”

Jennifer Gunter, a white woman from Jackson, Mississippi, who is now studying in Columbia, South Carolina, started an online petition to have her home state's flag changed in light of the Charleston killings.

"I decided if we were going to change the flag in Mississippi the time would be now, with the momentum, national and state attention focused on [the Charleston massacre]," Gunter, 43, told BuzzFeed News of her petition, which has since drawn more than 3,000 signatures.

"It's an embarrassment," she added. "I love my home state. I actually have a tattoo of my home state. But I will not fly the flag. I will not wear a T-shirt with it. And I don't know anybody that would.

"If we're going to honor the memory [of those killed] we should do something positive and move into the future, if you will, or rather into the present."

Even as elected leaders in South Carolina rallied around removing the Confederate battle flag from outside the Capitol building, county officials in Baltimore, Maryland, were also formally calling for a symbol of the Confederacy to be scrubbed from their city.

Officials had long been planning on urging the city to rename Robert E. Lee Park, Baltimore County Executive Chief of Staff Don Mohler told BuzzFeed News, but the events in Charleston loomed large and demanded a swift response.

"Nothing happens in isolation," Mohler said of his decision to announce their plan on the same day as Haley spoke. "The time is now. The time is now to make the change. The name 'Lake Roland Park' is much more respectful to the diversity of our community."

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced his administration would begin removing Confederate flags from speciality state-issued license plates. Citing a decision from the Supreme Court last week that ruled states can restrict certain designs on speciality vehicle license plates because they constitute the government's own speech, Gov. McAuliffe said the Confederate emblem was hindering efforts to make his state "more open and welcome to everyone."

"As Governor Haley said yesterday, her state can ill afford to let this symbol continue to divide the people of South Carolina," McAuliffe said. “I believe the same is true here in Virginia."

“Even [the Confederate flag's] display on state issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people," he said.

The national discussion on Confederate symbols is also being felt at the University of Texas in Austin, where the student government has been working to have a prominent statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, removed from campus.

"The tragedy in South Carolina ... sparked a lot of our students and alumni to think about the Confederate iconography on our campus," student body president Xavier Rotnofsky, 21, told BuzzFeed News. "People reached out on social media, by email, in letters. It really gave our push to remove the statue some momentum."

Much in the way Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be placed in a museum to honor her state's Civil War history, Rotnofsky said he believes the appropriate place for the Davis statue is in a museum.

"Jefferson Davis stands for a most horrible part of our past and represents a movement based on white supremacy and racism, so we don't think it's appropriate for it to be on university public grounds," he said.

Rotnofsky, who was elected in March, said he had met with the university president to discuss the issue and was confident an outcome would be reached soon.

In Tennessee, too, lawmakers have been publicly objecting to statues of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest, who served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. One bust of Forrest sits in the Tennessee statehouse and there are now calls for its removal. "Symbols of hate should not be promoted by government," U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn) told the Tennessean. "South Carolina should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol." Meanwhile, a Democratic candidate for Nashville mayor is proposing trees and shrubs be planted alongside a highway to block a large monument to Forrest that sits on private land.

The anti-Confederacy push is also impacting the business community, with retailers Walmart and Sears announcing Tuesday that they plan to stop selling merchandise featuring the flag's design. "We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer," a Walmart spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Mississippi Sen. Jones told BuzzFeed News he plans to discuss his state's flag with other members of the black caucus in order to begin a push for change.

"We should have been having this conversation a long time ago in the South," he said, "because now with every instance of violence you keep seeing the same symbol — the symbol on our state flag."

Baltimore County's executive chief of staff is Don Mohler. An earlier version of this post misstated his name.

David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.

Contact David Mack at david.mack@buzzfeed.com.

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