Cheers and hugs punctuated the morning. Just before the ceremony, a few gray-haired white men at the front of the crowd waved Confederate flags. But many more, both black and white, waved the United States flag.
Cleo Bethune, 70, looked at the old, slightly faded Confederate flag before guardsmen removed it. “I feel very emotional,” said Bethune, who is black. “Everyone who embraces it should enjoy this moment and move on. Just move on.”
Friday’s ceremony in Columbia bookended the highly emotional debate in South Carolina over the flag’s place on the statehouse grounds, a conversation that began anew after last month’s mass shooting of nine worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston. The nation reeled with shock and pain, and the state and U.S. flags atop South Carolina’s Capitol dome were lowered. But the Confederate battle emblem on the statehouse grounds flew high; only the legislature had the power to lower or bring it down.
Photos then emerged of the alleged Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooter, an avowed white supremacist, posing with the Confederate symbol. The flag’s place in the state gained instant national scrutiny, with those calling for its removal saying it symbolizes racial hate and violence. In a high-profile gesture, an activist climbed atop the flagpole and removed the flag; she was arrested and the flag was replaced.
Officials also said the flag should come down, including Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who asked the legislature to take up the issue. Lawmakers passed a bill this week to remove the flag.
“In South Carolina, we honor tradition, we honor history, we honor heritage, but there’s a place for that flag, and that flag needs to be in a museum, where we will continue to make sure people will honor it appropriately,” Haley said Friday morning on NBC’s “Today” show. “But the statehouse, that’s an area that belongs to everyone. And no one should drive by the statehouse and feel pain. No one should drive by the statehouse and feel like they don’t belong.”
President Barack Obama tweeted Friday, “South Carolina taking down the confederate flag – a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”
The Confederate flag flew on top of the capitol dome starting in 1961; a compromise lawmakers reached in 2000 relocated it to a Confederate war memorial on the statehouse grounds.
South Carolina’s Senate swiftly and overwhelmingly approved a bill this week to lower the flag and place it in the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. That bill passed the House with bipartisan support early Thursday after 13 hours of increasingly tense and emotional debate, in which defenders of the battle emblem insisted it represents Southern heritage, not racial oppression.
Haley signed the measure into law Thursday, using nine pens in the ceremony; each pen will go to a family of one of those killed in Emanuel AME Church last month.
“This is a story about the history of South Carolina,” Haley said Thursday. “And how the action of nine individuals laid out this long chain of events that forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness looks like.”
The flag now resides in storage at the nearby museum; details of how it will be displayed, and how much that will cost, haven’t yet been settled.
Controversy over the battle emblem remains far from settled across the nation, and this week’s actions by the South Carolina General Assembly have ricocheted well beyond the state. Members of Congress have taken up the issue within the halls of the U.S. Capitol, where House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called for a review of Confederate symbols.
On Friday, crowds streamed toward the S.C. Capitol, many dressed in shorts and hats and some in their Sunday best. Among them was Yvonne Pygatt, a retired social worker whose cousin Myra Thompson was killed in the church shooting.
“This is a proud moment but this is something that should have happened a long time ago,” said Pygatt, 60, standing in the hot sun at the statehouse where she had been involved in many rallies over the years to bring the flag down.
“For those nine people and their families, if they didn’t take it down they’d have to see that flag flying here, and it’d bring back all those memories,” said her friend Annie McDaniel, a school district official who had also rallied to remove the flag. “Honestly I thought it would never happen.”
Some members of the crowd continued discussing the symbol’s meaning moments before the flag’s removal. Dwayne Gross, who owns an IT company, drove from Charlotte, N.C. Seeing the few white haired men waiving confederate flags and talking about heritage, Gross, who is black, said: “Their history is not that important to me. If they had their way, I’d still be a slave.”
Gross said his own feelings were “mixed.” He added: “What’s it really going to change in terms of peoples’ lives?”
Nearby, James E. Wilson, who is white, agreed, and stood with his camera pointed at the flag pole.
“I grew up around a lot of racism and flag waving, and it’s been misused so much over the years,” said Wilson, 64, a mental health counselor from Columbia. “I think this changes the mood. It’s going to create a dialogue.”
As the flag began to descend the pole, and the clapping and cheering rose, Bethune’s cousin Lionel Johnson, 65, shouted, “There it comes down! Yeah! All right! Yes! Yes!” Johnson’s 19-year-old grandson Rayneth Johnson held up his cellphone, and the flag disappeared from view.
When it was done, Cyrus Thornton, a 31-year-old pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbia, asked someone to snap his photo in front of the empty pole.
“I feel good,” said Thornton, who is black. “I finally feel like I’m part of this great state of South Carolina.”
The post has been updated.