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South Carolina lowers Confederate flag in wake of church massacre

COLUMBIA, S.C.: South Carolina on Friday removed the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds in a joyous but solemn ceremony that relegated a divisive symbol of the South’s pro-slavery legacy to a museum.

The Civil War flag, which had flown at the State House for 54 years, came down less than a month after a white gunman killed nine black men and women in a historic Charleston church.

As an honor guard of black and white state troopers ceremoniously lowered the flag and folded it to be taken to a nearby museum, a crowd chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” and broke out singing a refrain from a late 1960s pop song, “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.”

While the banner is a hated symbol of slavery and racism to many, it is an emblem of Southern pride and heritage for others.

The banner was moved to the “relic room” of the state military museum in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital. There it will take its place among other artifacts carried by Southern Confederate soldiers 150 years ago in the Civil War.

President Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, tweeted, “South Carolina taking down the confederate flag – a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”

South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley, who pushed for the state legislature to enact a law to remove the flag, was among those watching on the State House steps.

The legislature gave final passage to the bill, required before the flag could be moved, by an overwhelming majority on Thursday after three days of tense debate.

In an interview with NBC’s “Today” TV show on Friday before the flag came down, Haley said, “I’m thinking of those nine people today,” referring to the “Charleston 9” gunned down on June 17 at the port city’s African Methodist Episcopal church. Among the slain were Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a widely admired state senator.

The 21-year-old white man charged in the massacre, Dylann Roof, appeared in photographs posing with a Confederate flag that surfaced on a website bearing a racist manifesto. That image spurred politicians and leading national retailers to pull the flag from display.

In South Carolina, the first state to secede during the 1861-1865 Civil War, this week’s debate in the state legislature brought an emotional closure to a symbol long divisive in the state.

The Confederate battle flag waved atop the state capitol from 1961 to 2000, when it was moved to a Confederate war memorial near the State House entrance as a compromise with those who wanted it removed from the grounds permanently. The state raised the banner over the capitol dome at a time when segregationists were resisting federal efforts to integrate the South.

“My heart is overjoyed. I can feel the togetherness,” said Tenetha Hall, of Newberry, South Carolina, who said she took a day off work to drive an hour to Columbia to watch the flag come down. “I’m so glad my children and six grandchildren will get to see this history.”

The head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Charles Kelly Barrow, issued a statement on Thursday saying he was “dismayed” by the signing of the law, describing it as a “politically convenient insult to the legacy of millions of South Carolinians.”

Brighton Lester, 27, of Columbia and his wife, Megan, 24 were at the State House on Friday carrying large Confederate flags on poles.

“I came here to show my support for the flag, for the positive side of it,” Brighton Lester said.

“I am indifferent on whether it flies at the State House. But I believe people should be educated about history.”

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