COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With signs reading "Your heritage is my slavery," thousands of people marched today to protest the Confederate flag that flies above the Statehouse and demand a permanent state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King's son, Martin Luther King III, opened the day with a prayer breakfast at the University of South Carolina.
"This is the kind of thing we need to be doing on Martin Luther King's birthday," King said. "The flag is a terrible symbol that brings a lot of negative energy. And while we believe the flag has an appropriate place, it just does not belong on top of the Capitol because it is not a sign of unification."
Demonstrators gathered at a downtown church for a service before marching to the Statehouse six blocks away, singing "the flag is coming down" and waving American flags. The marchers were led with a banner declaring "A March and Rally for the Removal of the Confederate Flag."
The marchers included a smattering of whites, including 16-year-old Heather Showman. She said the flag did not offend her but she understood why others were offended by it.
"We need to get this flag off the Statehouse and promote racial unity," she said.
People seeking the flag's removal say it is a bitter reminder of slavery and racism. Flag supporters say it represents the heritage of those who fought and died for a cause they believed in.
More than 6,000 marched a week ago in the South Carolina Heritage 2000 rally to show support for keeping the flag atop the Statehouse.
In addition to the flag issue, civil-rights groups want the state to make Martin Luther King Day a permanent holiday for state workers, who now can take off that day or one of several tied to Confederate anniversaries.
South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges decided to speak at a King Day observation rather than attend today's rally, said spokeswoman Nina Brook.
"The governor wants to be a mediator, a person who helps folks come together on the flag," Brook told The State newspaper of Columbia. "Therefore, it's not appropriate for him to participate in events that are being portrayed as either anti-flag or pro-flag."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started a tourism boycott of the state Jan. 1, pushing the issue of the flag.
The boycott has been effective, said Nelson B. Rivers III, the NAACP's national field director. Many people who came to the city today for the rally elected to stay at churches rather than at hotels.
He also said the boycott has promoted discussion. "The General Assembly has now had more talk about trying to take it down in the last three weeks than they have in the last three years," Rivers III said on NBC's "Today" show.
But state House Speaker Pro Tem Terry Haskins said the boycott has had little effect.
"This boycott was nothing but a phony publicity stunt from the start," Haskins said on "Today."
On Sunday talk shows, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and businessman Steve Forbes agreed that South Carolina voters should determine whether the flag continues to fly atop the state capitol. All three, who are running for the Republican nomination for president, also said it shouldn't be an issue for their campaign.
"That's a legitimate debate that will be decided by the people of South Carolina," said Forbes.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition also is urging tourists to boycott Georgia until that state's Legislature removes the Confederate emblem from its state flag. The emblem was incorporated in 1956 -- two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation illegal in public schools.
Civil rights activists plan to call for the Georgia boycott Jan. 30 in Atlanta, said Joe Beasley, Southern regional director for Rainbow/PUSH.