After decades of bitter debate over whether the Confederate battle flag is a proud symbol of regional heritage or a shameful emblem of this nation’s most grievous sins, the argument may finally be moving toward an end.

South Carolina is leading the way for other states, as it considers removing the flag from its capitol grounds in the wake of a horrific racial hate crime.

The historical poignancy is heavy and resonant, given that the killings last week of nine African Americans took place in a church basement just a few miles from where the first shots of the Civil War were exchanged in 1861. Photos that have since surfaced of the accused killer, Dylann Roof, show him posing with the Confederate flag.

The banner was long considered politically sacrosanct in the South, at least among conservative whites. It now appears that a rush is on to banish it, along with other images that evoke the Confederacy and sow racial divisiveness.

“It’s a baby step of progress, but we had to step through the blood of nine dead people,” said former College of Charleston president Alex Sanders, a longtime critic of the flag.

A Confederate flag is still flying on the grounds of South Carolina's state capitol, even after a white gunman was accused of killing nine black churchgoers at an AME church in Charleston, S.C. Here's a closer look at why the flag isn't at half-staff or even off the grounds completely. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said his state will quit issuing license plates with the insignia and replace those already on the road. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, both Republicans, also said they want to get rid of such license plates in their states.

And in Mississippi, the top Republican in the state House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, has called for the Confederate battle cross to be removed from the upper left corner of his state’s flag. As recently as 2001, Mississippi voters weighed in by more than 2 to 1 to retain the rebel badge as the dominant feature of their flag.

Not for sale

Meanwhile, businesses are moving quickly to remove the symbol from their inventory. In the space of less than 24 hours, retailing giants Wal-Mart, Sears, eBay and all announced that they would no longer sell Confederate-themed merchandise. Valley Forge Flag, a leading flagmaker, said it will cease to make the banner.

“It is important for us to escape the specific gravity of all of the things that caused the Civil War, and the main thing that caused the Civil War was slavery,” said filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a nine-part documentary about the war that cleaved the country. “That Dixie flag is a shorthand for the perpetuation of those values.”

At a Wal-Mart in North Charleston, employees said the store pulled all Confederate-flag items three days ago.

Where they once would have been, shelves were stuffed with American flags. Shopper Carol Lincoln, 56, an African American nurse from Charleston, said she supported the removal of Confederate paraphernalia.

“Yes, take it down, down, down. Take it down so there will be peace in South Carolina,” she said. “The meaning of it got twisted somewhere. That twist led to terrible things happening.”

Tuesday night, the board of the Citadel — the South Carolina military college whose cadets were among the first to fire on Union troops in the Civil War — voted to remove the Confederate flag from the school’s Summerall Chapel to another, undecided location.

Religious leaders have also weighed in, saying the moral imperative is clear in the wake of the Charleston slayings.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote on his blog Friday: “The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night. . . . The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

Moore, head of the public policy arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, is a Mississippian whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

His sensitivity to the issue was raised more than a decade ago, he recalled in an interview, when he invited an African American friend to his home for dinner and realized that his guest might be offended by the Mississippi flag he displayed there. Moore took down the flag, which had been retrieved from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, and it fell apart in his hands.

Though Moore expected “tremendous blowback” from his post, he said the reaction has been almost uniformly positive.

In calling Monday for the removal of the flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) — the daughter of Indian immigrants — stood alongside dozens of influential South Carolina figures in a striking tableau of the state’s modern-day ethnic and political diversity.

“A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come,” she said.

Defending the flag

Yet there is also resistance. South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright (R), a state co-chairman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), called the proposal a “Stalinist purge.” Amazon registered a surge of buyers of Confederate-themed merchandise in the hours before the company decided to stop selling it. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners Tuesday that the effort to get rid of the flag is aimed at “destroying the South as a political force,” and he predicted, “The next flag that will come under assault, and it will not be long, is the American flag.”

Jared Taylor, a former board member of the Council of Conservative Citizens — a group cited by Roof in a racist online manifesto — intimated that casting “blame” on white Southerners and their history could bring more violence. Whites “are being told that their ancestors were wicked white slave owners, and they are being asked to bear guilt that has come down through the generations,” Taylor said. “I fear that if this message is redoubled and repeated, there will be those white Southerners who cannot control their anger.”

Its defenders say the Confederate banner is a link to bygone times and an expression of opposition to federal encroachment on states’ rights. But in many Southern states, the flag did not gain currency until the 1950s and early 1960s, at a time of white resistance to desegregation and the civil rights movement.

“If it was purely a flag representing the region, albeit one involved with a stupid war, I would be proud of it,” said Curtis Wilkie, a journalist and historian of the South who teaches at the University of Mississippi. “Yet it’s become something entirely different and therefore objectionable.”

Over the years, there have been a number of endeavors to do away with the Confederate flag, which has often projected an image of being stuck in another century.

“It’s a topic in boardrooms,” said Andy Taggart, a Republican consultant in Mississippi. “For years we’ve had to grant every other state a little bit of a head start because we’ve needed to overcome the fact that we’re still perceived as firmly ensconced in our view of the past.”

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce began advocating in the late 1990s for the flag’s removal from the capitol dome in Columbia, where it had flown since 1961. Some of the organization’s members resigned in protest. As a compromise, legislators decided in 2000 to remove the flag from the building and fly it on the statehouse grounds instead.

A generational divide

While the current reaction against the flag is no doubt a reflexive one after the killings in Charleston, it also has a generational dimension.

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) said in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday that he is “not offended at all by our flag or the Confederate flag.”

But his nephew, Henry Barbour, 50, a member of the Republican National Committee, disagreed with his 67-year-old uncle.

“Charleston has to be a catalyst, especially the response from the families, which were remarkable and so godly,” Henry Barbour said Tuesday. “I’m ready to see us move on. I respect the hearts of others who disagree, but it’s time to fold up our flag, put it in a museum. Our flag should represent every one of the 3 million people who live in Mississippi.”

DeNeen L. Brown in Charleston, and Tom Hamburger and Philip Rucker in Washington, contributed to this report.