Political News

After 54 years, Confederate flag removed from SC capitol

Posted July 10, 2015 12:21 p.m. EDT
Updated July 10, 2015 10:41 p.m. EDT

— For the first time since the civil rights movement, the Confederate battle flag was removed entirely from the South Carolina Statehouse, in a swift ceremony Friday before thousands of people who cheered as the Civil War-era banner was lowered from a 30-foot flagpole.

Many people believed the flag would fly indefinitely in this state, which was the first to leave Union, but the killing of nine black church members during a Bible study in Charleston last month changed that sentiment, reigniting calls to bring down Confederate flags and symbols across the nation.

Dylann Roof, a white man who was photographed with the flag, is charged in the shooting deaths, and authorities have called the killings a hate crime.

"We thought, 'Nah, the legislature would never go with this,' but they did," said April Ulrey, who recently moved from South Carolina to Chapel Hill.

The crowd chanted "USA, USA" and "hey, hey, hey, goodbye" as an honor guard of South Carolina troopers lowered the flag during a six-minute ceremony. Gov. Nikki Haley stood on the Statehouse steps along with family members of the victims and other dignitaries. While she didn't speak, she nodded and smiled in the direction of the crowd after someone shouted: "Thank you, governor."

Haley supported the flag before the shooting, but the Republican had a change of heart in the days after the killings, urging legislators to pass a bill before the end of the summer. She signed the legislation Thursday.

As she looked on, two troopers rolled the flag and tied it up with a string. They handed it to Lt. Derrick Gamble, a black trooper, who brought it to the Statehouse steps. When the trooper handed it to a state archivist, the governor clapped.

"This state has really come together as one. I think it showed the nation what it truly means to be one," Gamble said.

President Barack Obama tweeted minutes after the flag was down, saying it was "a sign of good will and healing and a meaningful step towards a better future." Obama delivered a eulogy at the funeral for state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was also pastor of the church where the killings took place.

The honor guard that took the flag down was the same group of men who carried Pinckney's coffin into the Statehouse for a viewing last month.

Denise Quarles' mother, Myra Thompson, received her license to preach just hours before the June 17 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Quarles said the group known as the "Emanuel 9" smiled from heaven as the Confederate flag was taken down for good.

"The tragedy was a tragedy, but now, on the other side of that tragedy, we see a lot of positives coming out. Maybe people will change their hearts," Quarles said.

A van brought the flag to the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. There, it eventually will be housed in a multimillion-dollar shrine lawmakers promised to build as part of a deal to get a bill passed removing the flag.

After the flag was taken down, the NAACP ended its longstanding boycott of South Carolina.

"Our work is to make things fair, just and right for all people," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP. "You can do it. We can do it. So, that's where we go next."

South Carolina's leaders first flew the battle flag over the Statehouse dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It remained there to represent official opposition to the civil rights movement.

Decades later, mass protests against the flag by those who said it was a symbol of racism and white supremacy led to a compromise in 2000 with lawmakers who insisted that it symbolized Southern heritage and states' rights. The two sides came to an agreement to move the flag from the dome to a 30-foot pole next to a Confederate monument in front of the Statehouse.

Many thought it would stay there. Within hours, even the flagpole and the iron fence that surrounded it had been removed.

Patsy Eaddy, a black woman, said there was a "sense of embarrassment" of seeing the flag still flying after all these years. She attended the ceremony to see an important milestone in the civil rights movement.

"We lived through the turbulent '60s. I'm just so happy to be here to witness this," she said.

"For the first time in my life, the state has said that we're all one and all lives matter, and if it offends us, we will take it down," Rev. Nelson Rivers said. "After all these years, the state wouldn't do it, but it was done today. It's an awesome day."

Gervais Street in front of the capitol was shut down to accommodate the large crowd, some of whom danced in the street after the flag was down. People who supported removing the flag chanted "take it down" before the ceremony and vastly outnumbered those who were upset about the move.

"It feels so good to be out here and be happy about it," said Ronald D. Barton, 52, a pastor who also was at the ceremony in 2000.

"I'm 52 years old, and I know the flag went on the dome right before I was born," Leigh Ann Pfannenstiel said. "I think it's only right that it comes down now."

"We like the fact that it came down. It didn't represent what we felt like was a positive side of our ancestors," Kesha Coleman said.

"At the end of the day, it's still a piece of fabric," Lonnie Graham said. "You don't know people's true actions, but it is symbolic. It's history."

Artist Bernard Jackson captured the historic event on his own piece of fabric, combining on canvas a portrait of a black Union soldier with images of the Confederate flag and the crowd watching the flag being removed.

"South Carolina can get on with the business of loving each other and growing," Jackson said. "There's nothing but beautiful things ahead of us now. This is the best day in South Carolina history. It's better than the end of the war because it officially ended today."

He said he plans to take his painting to schools as a history lesson and to make posters of it before donating it to either a church or a museum.

Haley did not answer questions, but earlier Friday, on NBC's "Today" show, she said: "No one should ever drive by the Statehouse and feel pain. No one should ever drive by the Statehouse and feel like they don't belong."

Still, others were not celebrating.

"We are here today primarily to remember the 650,000 casualties of the Civil War," said war re-enactor Kenneth Robinson.

Robinson and fellow re-enactors held a vigil on the Statehouse grounds, hoping to ensure that Civil War veterans and others aren't forgotten.

"Nine lives matter," he said, referring to the victims of the church shooting. "All deaths matter, period."

Clad in a black dress similar to those worn in the 19th century, Cindy Lampley clutched a poster showing photos of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. Lampley said she is a historical re-enactor who fears removing symbols like the flag dishonors her relatives who fought for the Southern cause.

"I think it's important that we remember them," Lampley said. "It's a sad day for me that my ancestors will no longer see their flag flying next to their memorial."