COLUMBIA, South Carolina (WTVD) -- South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon that the Confederate battle flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.
"150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come," Haley said after rousing applause, surrounded by Democrats and Republican lawmakers. "That flag, while an integral part of the past, does not represent the future of our great state"
The flag has flown in front of the state capitol for 15 years after being moved from atop the Statehouse dome.
Haley's declaration means that she is joining the host of local leaders who publicly called for the flag's removal as well as both of the state's senators.
U.S. Sens. Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, an African-American appointed by Haley, were standing with Haley during her announcement. When she finished, she hugged Scott and South Carolina's only other black congressman, Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn.
She said the South Carolina General Assembly will wrap up its summer session in about a week, but if it does not take action on the issue, she will call lawmakers back in special session.
While acknowledging that for many South Carolinians the flag is a historic symbol that represents tradition, respect, integrity, duty and a memorial, Haley said for others it is a deeply offensive symbol.
Haley said there is no need to declare a winner on the issue. She said citizens will remain free to display the flag on their own property, but it is time to remove it from public property.
"It's time to move the flag from the capitol grounds," she said.
State law dictates that two-thirds of the South Carolina General Assembly will have to call for the flag's removal.
The debate over the Civil War-era flag comes after last week's deadly shooting spree at a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
"This has been a very difficult time for our state," said Governor Haley. "We have stared evil in the face."
But Haley said instead of letting the gunman who killed state senator and church pastor Clementa Pinckney and 8 other churchgoers succeed in his aim of starting a race war, the state is pulling together.
"Our state is grieving, but we are also coming together," said Governor Haley. "True hate can never triumph over true love."
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said that while the flag was originally used to commemorate South Carolina residents who died during the Civil War, "years and years ago [it] was appropriated as a symbol of hate," he said Monday.
Riley said that it should be removed and put in a historic site or museum, because it "sends the wrong message."
The White House said President Barack Obama respects the state of South Carolina's authority to decide the issue, but believes the flag belongs in a museum.
Conservative politicians who have led South Carolina for a quarter-century have rebuffed many previous calls to remove the flag.
The last governor to take the political risk, Republican David Beasley, was hounded out of office in 1998 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and they made sure his political career was over thereafter. Their influence doomed Beasley's front-runner campaign for U.S. Senate, a seat later won by Republican Jim DeMint.
The group announced Monday that it will vigorously fight any effort to remove the flag now.
"Do not associate the cowardly actions of a racist to our Confederate Banner," South Carolina Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Leland Summers said in a statement. "There is absolutely no link between The Charleston Massacre and The Confederate Memorial Banner. Don't try to create one."
The flag's symbolism has angered many, particularly now that photos surfaced showing shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof burning one American flag and stepping on another, while waving and posing provocatively with Confederate banners.
At least one lawmaker acknowledged that he wasn't courageous enough to take a stand before, but the death of his friend Pinckney, who had served 19 years in the state House and Senate, changed that.
"I just didn't have the balls for five years to do it," said state Rep. Doug Brannon, who was elected in 2010.
"When my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds," Brannon said. "It's not just a symbol of hate, it's actually a symbol of pride in one's hatred."