By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C., July 6 (Reuters) - South Carolina lawmakers on Monday began an emotional debate over legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag that flies at the state capitol in Columbia and has long been denounced by its critics as a symbol of slavery.
The political discussion comes after numerous elected officials including Republican Governor Nikki Haley called for the flag's removal after the June 17 massacre of nine African-American churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston.
Politicians and businesses across the southern United States are trying to banish the Confederate flag in response to killings of the church's "Emanuel 9" during Bible study. Photos of the white man charged in the shooting showed him posing with the flag on a website that also carried a racist manifesto.
The shooting took the life of the church's pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator, and his senate desk was draped in black.
The flag's defenders argue that it is worthy of recognition as part of South Carolina's heritage, representing the sacrifice of lives on the battlefield during the Civil War. They also worry that bringing down the flag, which has flown for more than 50 years at the capitol, could lead to calls for removing symbols from other monuments and changing street and place names honoring Confederate leaders.
The removal legislation appears to have a good chance of success and could be approved as early as Thursday.
A recent poll taken by Charleston's Post and Courier newspaper showed both houses of the legislature would reach the two-thirds majority required under state law to move the flag, which was flown by rebelling states in the Civil War.
The confederate flag flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27, 2015. There has been a growing clamor for the flag -- branded 'a reminder of systemic oppression and racist subjugation' by President Barack Obama on Friday -- to be removed from the grounds of the state house in Columbia. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Noting that he was mocked by politicians a year ago when he introduced similar legislation, he said the Charleston murders were a reminder that a racist cultural divide still existed in the state.
Removing the flag was "one small thing that we can do" to heal that divide, he said.
While some white people might have emotional ties to the Confederate flag, Senator Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat, reminded legislators that the descendants of slaves look at it differently.
"When I see a Confederate soldier, I don't get goosebumps and get all warm and fuzzy," he said. "All I'm saying is you can't force all of us to have the passion that some of you have about certain things."
FLAG RAISED IN 1961
Since the killings, Haley has led the charge for the flag's removal and 29 of the state's 46 senators have also signed onto bipartisan legislation that would transfer it to a military museum.
The state Senate is expected to vote first to take the flag down followed by a debate in the House of Representatives.
The Confederate flag was raised atop the State House dome in 1961 as part of centennial commemorations of the Civil War. Critics said that was a direct challenge to civil rights, voting rights and desegregation protests at the time.
In 2000, after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced an economic boycott of South Carolina and protesters marched on the state capital, lawmakers agreed to a compromise, moving the flag to a monument to Confederate war dead on the capitol grounds.
The NAACP action, as well as boycotts by sports organizations and protests saying the flag is an offensive symbol of slavery and white supremacy, have continued since then. (Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)