John Bazemore / AP

Confederate battle flag comes down at South Carolina Capitol

Officials remove an emblem that black leaders have denounced as a cruel reminder of South Carolina’s history of slavery

Amid shouts of joy from thousands who gathered to watch, South Carolina state troopers lowered the Confederate battle flag from its perch outside the Statehouse in the capital, Columbia, on Friday. After flying there for over 50 years, it fell three weeks after a mass shooting in a predominantly black church by a suspect who revered the symbol.

Just a few yards from the Confederate memorial, some in the crowd chanted "USA! USA! USA!" while waving the U.S. flag as the troopers solemnly lowered the rebel banner. Marching in lockstep, the troopers, some white and some black, took down the emblem, which has come to symbolize Southern hate for some, Southern heritage for others.

With emotional debates and raucous protests behind it, South Carolina quickly and quietly removed the battle flag from Capitol grounds. The state's African-American leaders — including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the church massacre — denounced the flag's presence at the Capitol as a reminder of the state's history of slavery, racism and segregation. After the June 17 massacre, calls for its removal became too loud for lawmakers to ignore. 

Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday signed a bill taking down the flag after several days of debate by the state's legislature, which approved its removal by a wide margin. 

But critics say that South Carolina's laws on criminal acts of hate fall far short of those in most other states. Lacking any kind of state hate crime law, South Carolina is joined only by Georgia, Indiana, Arkansas and Wyoming.

There are federal hate crimes statutes that can apply in South Carolina, but state bills have failed to gain traction in Columbia. Bills failed in three legislative sessions since 2010. Another was put forward in January 2014, but is still pending.

Mark Potok, a lawyer with the Southern Policy Law Center, which monitors hate groups and white supremacists nationwide, told Al Jazeera that even though the symbols of the Confederacy are coming down, it doesn't mean hate crimes legislation will follow — especially if lawmakers wait until the next legislative session early next year. 

"Right now, South Carolina legislators are working in the glare of national publicity and the immediate aftermath of the Charleston massacre, I think by the time January rolls around, a lot of the will to do something good will have disappeared," Potok said. 

The end of the flag's display on public land is the most concrete legislative outcome of the shocking act of violence. The alleged killer faces multiple murder charges. 

"We will bring it down with dignity, and we will make sure it is stored in its rightful place," Haley said Thursday.

Authorities will escort the flag to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum a few blocks from the Statehouse. 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.

"No one should ever drive by the Statehouse and feel pain," Haley said Friday morning on NBC's "Today" show. "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 Capitol dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start 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 supremacism 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.

Thousands of people showed up for the transfer in 2000. Flag supporters shouted, "Off the dome and in your face!" at protesters who wanted the flag gone, with 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.

The matter was largely thought settled, but the massacre of Pinckney and eight others inside Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church gave it new urgency. 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 battle flag before the shootings, suspect Dylann Roof, who has not yet entered a plea to nine counts of murder, convinced some that the flag's reputation for white supremacism and racial oppression trumped its symbolism of Southern heritage and ancestral pride.

"People say he was wrapped in hate, that he was a hateful person," said Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg. "Well, his hate was wrapped in the cloak of that Confederate flag. That is why that flag is coming down."

Supporters of the flag were disappointed but resigned.

"It's just like the conclusion of the war itself," said Rep. Mike Pitts, who submitted several amendments to fly a different flag on the pole — all of which failed. "The issue was settled, and the nation came back together to move on."

States across the nation are moving on without their Confederate symbols. The rebel flag is gone from the Alabama Capitol, and the U.S. House voted that it may no longer fly at historic federal cemeteries in the Deep South.

A city council committee in Memphis wants to move a statue and the remains of Confederate hero and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest out of a prominent park, and officials in Alaska want a new moniker for a U.S. census district named for Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton.

At the bill signing Thursday, Haley said the removal of symbols that have become divisive is the right thing to do for the family members of those killed at Emanuel AME.

"We saw the families show the world what true grace and forgiveness look like," she said. "That set off an action of compassion by people in South Carolina and all over this country. They stopped looking at their differences and started looking at their similarities."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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