COLUMBIA (South Carolina) - What began as scattered calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from a single state Capitol has intensified with striking speed and scope into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, licence plates, Internet shopping sites and retail stores.
The South Carolina Legislature, less than a week after nine black parishioners were shot to death in a church in Charleston, voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds.
In Charleston, the board that governs the Citadel, the state's 173-year-old military academy, voted nine-three to remove the Confederate Naval Jack from the campus chapel.
In Tennessee, political leaders from both parties said a bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader, should be moved out of the State House. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, ordered that the Confederate flag would no longer appear on licence plates. Political leaders in Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee vowed to do the same.
And in Mississippi, the state's House speaker and Republican Philip Gunn called for taking a Confederate battle cross off the upper corner of his state's flag, the only remaining state banner to display the emblem.
"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us," he said in a statement that stunned many in Jackson, the capital.
For decades, images of the Confederacy have been opposed by people who viewed them as painful symbols of slavery, racism and white dominance, and supported by those who saw them as historical emblems from the Civil War, reminders of generations-long Southern pride. Yet the new calls, after the church massacre last week, came with surprising force and swiftness. The demands straddled lines of partisanship and race, drawing support from even Southern conservatives who for years defended displays of the flag as a matter of regional pride.
The movement also reached far beyond the political sphere, and beyond the South itself. Google joined Amazon and eBay on Tuesday in pulling the Confederate flag merchandise from its shopping site, following brick and mortar retailers in reacting to the shooting. Wal-Mart and Sears on Monday banned sales of products bearing the image of the flag.
And messages were painted on Confederate statues in Charleston, Baltimore and Austin, Texas, that read: "Black Lives Matter."
"To see all of this happening, all of a sudden, it speaks of some fundamental change in the country," said Mr Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. "It is surprising in the sense that there have been calls for this for years. But it took this tragedy to spur this type of change."
Dylann Roof, 21, the white man from South Carolina accused of carrying out the shootings at a Bible study last Wednesday inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, espoused a white supremacist philosophy, said his friends, and posed for photos with the Confederate battle flag. The massacre, and the images of Roof, set off the nationwide re-examination of Confederate symbols.
On Tuesday, the vote in the South Carolina Legislature was procedural, allowing lawmakers to consider only a Bill, not yet introduced, in the coming weeks. But in a legislature that had previously resisted passionate calls to remove the flag, its passage by huge margins was a watershed.
Yet, as proposals emerged to remove Confederate imagery in state after state, members of Confederate veterans' organisations voiced concern about the flood of demands and said they felt misunderstood. The Confederate statues and the battle flag were a matter of remembering family members who had fought in the Civil War, they said.
"This is a feeding frenzy of cultural cleansing," said Mr Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group. "It's an hysteria - we just want to fly this flag for family, for grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors."
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE