BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Reuters) - More and more voices across the U.S. South called for banishing the banner of the pro-slavery Confederacy on Wednesday in a fast-growing movement that adds new emotion and tensions to a year of soul-searching over race in America.
From Alabama to Mississippi, Louisiana to Tennessee and beyond the South, politicians distanced themselves from Confederate flags and monuments memorializing southern heroes of the 1861-65 War Between the States.
Alabama’s governor ordered the Confederate flag and three other flags of the Confederacy removed from the grounds of the state’s Capitol in Montgomery, a historically significant city in America’s civil rights movement where Martin Luther King Jr. led protests in the 1950s.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.
In Mississippi, Senator Roger Wicker said his state’s flag, which features a Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner, should be replaced with one that is more unifying. Republican Governor Phil Bryant said he does not favor changing the flag, noting voters approved keeping it in 2001 by a 2-1 margin.
Weighing in on a debate that has swept the American South since the massacre of nine blacks in a South Carolina church last week by a suspected white gunman, Wicker said Mississippi’s flag should be put in a museum and replaced - a comment that was echoed by Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran.
“We should look for unity and not divisiveness in the symbols of our state,” Cochran said in a statement.
The shooting at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has spawned a nationwide movement to eradicate symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, license plates, retail stores and some Internet sites.
“There is a new national consensus that is building with great speed,” said Donald Jones, a University of Miami constitutional law professor who specializes in civil rights. “It’s like the ice breaking. What we are witnessing is a melt.”
The debate underlines continuing divisions over a flag seen in the South as a source of pride and as a remembrance of Confederate soldiers killed in America’s Civil War. Others see it as a symbol of oppression and of a dark chapter in American history that saw 11 rebelling Confederate states fight to keep blacks enslaved.
It comes a day after South Carolina’s legislature voted to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds and leaders in Tennessee said a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, should be removed from the State House.
In New Orleans, pressure is growing to remove a monument of Jefferson Davis, a slave owner who led the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
“It is divisive and you can’t ignore monuments. You can’t be indifferent to them,” said Shawn Anglim, pastor for First Grace United Methodist Church. “I believe we are in a moment and that many people are feeling it.”
Also in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of a 60-foot (18-meter) statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The statue towers above a major traffic circle.
School districts from California to Texas with buildings or mascots related to Confederate leaders or symbols are wrestling with the issue.
Vocativ, a site that uses its technology to mine Internet data, said at least 188 public and charter schools across the country are named either for prominent Confederates or for places named after prominent Confederates.
California state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat, urged the San Diego Unified School District to rename an elementary schools named after Lee. Anyone associated with the Confederate army, she said, is linked to intolerance and racism.
The Pentagon resisted pressure to change the names of military installations named after Confederate generals, saying the names represent “individuals not causes or ideologies.”
In Kentucky, calls were also growing to remove a Davis statue. “The Jefferson Davis statue belongs in a museum, where history is taught, rather than in the State Capitol, where laws are made,” said Kentucky state Attorney General Jack Conway.
There were also signs of pushback against moving too fast to remove the red flag that is crisscrossed by a blue “X” studded with 13 small stars, along with other Confederate symbols.
In southern Washington state, a private group flew a Confederate flag in a park devoted to honoring Davis, veterans and the Confederacy heritage in defiance of calls by a local black leader to take down a symbol of “divisiveness and hatred”.
“We are strictly a veteran heritage organization, whose mission is to honor and defend the Confederate soldiers good name, defend our heritage and present the true history of the South to future generations,” Erik Ernst of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Pacific Northwest Division wrote on Facebook. “We fly the national flags of the Confederacy out of respect for President Davis and our Confederate ancestors.”
And in Florida, one of the biggest Confederate symbols flies over a Tampa highway, described by its backers as “the world’s largest Confederate battle flag”. It ripples from a 139-foot (42-meter) poll in a “Confederate Memorial Park” run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, has called for it to come down. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans says it should remain as a reminder of those killed in the Civil War.
Writing by Jason Szep; Additional reporting by Alex Wilts in Washington, Kathy Finn in New Orleans, Eric Johnson in Seattle, David Adams in Charleston, Steve Bittenbender in Louisville and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker