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Confederate flag's half-century at South Carolina Capitol ends

Story highlights

  • The flag was lowered shortly after 10 a.m. ET
  • It has been moved to military museum a mile down the road

(CNN)It took just a few minutes, simultaneously somber and festive, to put a bookend on the Confederate flag's 54-year run at the South Carolina Capitol grounds.

A crowd of hundreds erupted in cheers, and sang a farewell refrain more associated with sports arenas, as uniformed highway patrol officers lowered the flag from a pole next to a soldiers' monument shortly after 10 a.m. ET Friday.
    "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!" the voices sang.
    Watch Confederate flag come down from South Carolina's capitol
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    It was a move stemming from years of deep-rooted controversy over the banner that gained steam after last month's massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston.
    "Finally we can breathe, we can sigh, we can cheer," said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, one of the onlookers. "This is why Rosa sat and Martin marched, so that we can have events like this."
    Hundreds encircled the monument to witness a flag-lowering ceremony that was both choreographed and quick. The patrol officers handed the flag to one of the state's two black Cabinet-level officials, Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith.
    In a fate decided by lawmakers this week after hours of passionate debate, the flag was taken to a state military museum about a mile down the road, where it will be exhibited.

    Obama: 'A signal of good will and healing'

    The removal comes only a day after the state legislature passed a bill ordering it, buoyed by arguments that a flag that some see as a symbol of support for of racism and white supremacy couldn't remain on the Capitol grounds after the Charleston massacre.
    President Barack Obama celebrated the move on Twitter:
    "South Carolina taking down the confederate flag - a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future," his post read.
    Many were jubilant at Friday's ceremony, chanting "USA!" and singing the refrain from "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."
    "It's a beautiful day in South Carolina," said Liliinn Hemingway, a black woman who attended the ceremony with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
    A white man from Greenwood, South Carolina, held a U.S. flag as he looked on. He said it was time for the Confederate flag to come down.
    "I have respect for the people that honor that as their heritage, but it's been used in other ways," the man, who didn't give his name, told CNN. "It's symbolic of a lot of things that are negative and a lot of things that are part of the dark part of our country's history."
    The ceremony also resonated in Charleston, where people gathered outside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the June 17 massacre.
    Among them was William Ray III, the 20-year-old president of the Black Student Alliance at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
    "America was built on the backs of racism," he said, "and racism is a system that needs to be deconstructed."
    The Confederate flag's removal is "historical, of course, but it's a piece in a billion-piece puzzle," Ray added.
    For a granddaughter of one of those who died in the Charleston shooting, the flag's removal was an appreciated gesture.
    Alana Simmons, granddaughter of the Rev. Daniel Simmons, said she believed "the flag is definitely a symbol of division."
    "(But) taking down the flag, or even doing more with gun control, isn't enough to change the hearts of man," she told CNN's "New Day" on Friday morning from Williamsburg, Virginia.
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    The NAACP lauded the removal, saying it will move to lift its 15-year economic boycott against the state during a national convention this weekend.

    Divided opinions

    Gov. Nikki Haley, who argued for the flag's removal after the Charleston killings, signed the bill Thursday and joined a number of lawmakers on the Capitol steps to see Friday's ceremony.
    The removal comes amid longstanding arguments in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South over what the flag represents. In a June CNN/ORC poll, 57% of American respondents saw the flag as more a symbol of Southern pride than as a symbol of racism, though 55% supported removing Confederate flags from government properties that weren't part of a museum.
    At Friday's ceremony, some in the crowd came in opposition to the removal, a few holding Confederate flags of their own.
    In the middle of the night, a man in a Confederate uniform walked up to the monument, saluted the Confederate flag and then left, CNN affiliate WCIV reported.
    In April 1961, South Carolina hoisted the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol dome in Columbia to honor the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. And it kept it there, flying under the U.S. flag and the state's palmetto flag.
    For years, African-Americans and others demanded the flag come down, saying it is a racist symbol that represents a war to uphold slavery and, later, a battle to oppose civil rights advances.
    Uproar over the flag influenced lawmakers in 2000. In a compromise, the legislature passed the Heritage Act, which moved the flag from the Capitol dome to a pole next to a soldiers' monument on the Capitol grounds.
    But debate renewed last month after a white gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, killed nine African-American worshipers in Emanuel AME, a historic Charleston church.
    Among those killed during a Bible study at the church was state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who also was the church's pastor.
    After the massacre, photos quickly surfaced of Roof holding the Confederate battle flag, which he apparently revered as a symbol of white supremacy.
    The racially motivated attack triggered a national wave of sympathy and outrage, and it renewed calls to have the battle flag removed.

    Outside pressure

    The tenacity behind the fight to delay the flag's removal had been fanned outside the House chamber before Thursday's vote.
    The State newspaper reported that pro-Confederate flag robocalls urged voters last week to call their representatives and to tell them to "not stand with leftist fanatics who want to destroy the South we love."
    "What's next? This attack on our values is sick and un-American, and it has to stop right here and right now in South Carolina," the call said.
    Legislators had received death threats over their potential votes on the flag, CNN affiliate WOLO reported.