Church in Charleston to reopen after shootings
A historic black church in Charleston will hold its first service since nine members of its congregation were shot dead during a Bible study session.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is expected to open its doors today, days after police say 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire on congregation members who welcomed him to the church's Wednesday night Bible study.
Several events are planned throughout the city to show solidarity with the congregation. Bells at more than a dozen churches throughout Charleston and elsewhere are expected to ring at 10am (1500 BST).
People are also planning to join hands and form a peace chain along a bridge connecting Charleston to one of its suburbs.
The reopening follows a protest on Saturday during which crowds and two prominent Republicans called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina Statehouse.
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 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, 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 over the 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 on Thursday when governor Nikki Haley ordered the state and US flags on at the Statehouse lowered to half-mast for nine days to honour the dead.
The Confederate flag, however, 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 senator 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 honour 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.