A crowd of hundreds gathered Friday among security officers and news crews to witness the historic removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds — a day many in the state thought would never come.
The state planned a simple, short ceremony at 10 a.m. to quickly and quietly remove the rebel banner, which was surrounded in its final hours by ropes and barricades. Authorities said a Highway Patrol honor guard would take down the flag but didn’t give other details.
Outside the Capitol, people who supported taking down the flag vastly outnumbered those who were upset about its removal.
“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, when the flag was moved from its place flying atop the Capitol dome to its current flagpole.
After the flag’s removal, a special van used to transport historical artifacts will take it to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, about a mile away. There, it eventually will be housed in a multimillion-dollar shrine lawmakers promised to build as part of a compromise to get the bill ordering the flag’s removal through the House.
According to the legislation Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed Thursday, the flagpole also will be taken down, but no time frame has been announced for that.
Haley walked out on the Capitol steps to take a look at the scene and to talk to officers ahead of the ceremony. She spent just over five minutes looking over the crowd, which quickly turned and began snapping pictures.
Haley did not answer questions about the upcoming ceremony, 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.”
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.
In 2000, the crowd was vastly larger than the one gathered Friday. Thousands of people showed up for the flag’s transfer. Flag supporters shouted, “Off the dome and in your face!” at protesters who wanted the flag gone, a line of police in special gear separating the two sides. A pair of Citadel cadets, one white and one black, lowered the flag from the dome as a dozen Confederate re-enactors marched to the brand new flagpole and raised the rebel banner.
Now, the flag is coming down completely, 23 days after the massacre of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Haley signed the bill with 13 pens. Nine of them went to the families of the victims.
Authorities say they believe the killings were racially motivated. By posing with the Confederate flag before the shootings, suspect Dylann Storm Roof, who has not yet entered a plea to nine counts of murder, convinced some that the flag’s reputation for white supremacy and racial oppression had trumped its symbolism of Southern heritage and ancestral pride.
On Friday, artist Ernest Lee came to the Statehouse with a framed portrait of all nine victims. He said he’s been invited to the Charleston church on Sunday to present his artwork. He said he wished more people would turn to art for inspiration.
“If they did, there wouldn’t be so much hate and violence,” he said.