By Wayne Hester
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 emotions 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. He did not want the flags to distract from other issues, said his press secretary, Yasamie August.
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.
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 fast-growing and emotional movement to eradicate symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, along with license plates, retail stores and Internet shopping websites.
The calls come a day after the South Carolina 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.
The debate underlines continuing divisions over a flag seen in the South as a source of pride and a remembrance of Confederate soldiers killed in America's 1861 to 1865 Civil War. Others see it as a symbol of oppression and the 11 rebelling Confederate states that fought to keep blacks enslaved.
"IT IS DIVISIVE"
In New Orleans, pressure is growing to remove a monument of the 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.
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.
School district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said the school’s name dates to its opening in 1959 and that the district looked forward to "a larger community dialogue" over the name.
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 flags and other Confederate symbols.
In southern Washington state, a private group was flying a Confederate flag in a park devoted to honoring Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, veterans and the heritage of the confederacy, 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."
Reverend Marva Edwards, a leader of the local chapter of the NAACP civil rights group, told the Columbian newspaper that the flag is “a reflection of bigotry, and divisiveness and hatred. It does not symbolize what America stands for."
(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)