COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AP) -- Crowds of protesters and two prominent Republicans on Saturday called for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina Statehouse following a massacre by a white gunman at a historically black church.
On Saturday evening, a substantial crowd rallied outside the Statehouse, calling on officials to take down the flag originally flown by the pro-slavery South during the 1861-65 American Civil War.
"We must put that flag in its place as a part of history," said Sarah Leverette, a 95-year-old civil rights activist, who attended the protest.
Bringing it down, she added, means the nine people killed at the the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal on Wednesday night, have not died in vain.
The Confederate flag has long been a divisive symbol in the United States and the two Republicans' calls for its removal could signal a shift in a country where the vast majority of black Americans vote Democratic.
The man charged in Wednesday's nine killings, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, held the Confederate flag in a photograph on a website and displayed the flags of defeated white-supremacist governments in Africa on his Facebook page.
Controversy over the flag escalated further Thursday when Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the state and U.S. flags on at the Statehouse lowered to half-staff for nine days to honor the dead.
The Confederate, however, flag didn't move due to a 2000 compromise that saw the flag moved from the Statehouse dome to a monument directly in front, the flag can only be lowered with approval of the full Legislature.
On Saturday, Republican South Carolina state Sen. Doug Brannon said he would now introduce a bill to remove the flag entirely.
"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, referring to one of the victims, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who doubled as the church's lead pastor.
"It's not just a symbol of hate, it's actually a symbol of pride in one's hatred," Brannon said of the flag.
Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential contender Mitt Romney expressed similar sentiments Saturday, increasing pressure on the 2016 Republican candidates into staking a position on a contentious cultural issue.
Many see the Confederate flag as "a symbol of racial hatred," Romney tweeted on Saturday. "Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims."
Romney's statement prompted most of the Republican Party's leading presidential contenders to weigh in on flying the Confederate battle flag, although few took a definitive position one way or the other. Many instead expressed personal dislike for the flag, but suggested it was up to the people of South Carolina to decide.
The debate holds political risks for Republicans eager to win over South Carolina conservatives who support the display of the battle flag on public grounds. The state will host the nation's third presidential primary contest in February, a critical contest in the 2016 race.
Associated Press Writers Seanna Adcox in Colombia, South Carolina and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.