Washington (AFP) – The divisive Confederate flag came down Friday at South Carolina’s legislature, drawing a line under a furor rekindled last month by the murder of nine black churchgoers by an alleged white supremacist.
Thousands gathered at the State House in Columbia to cheer the removal of the red, white and blue Civil War-era battle flag, regarded by many as a bitter symbol of racism and slavery that has no place in modern America.
Many chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as a state police honor guard in white gloves ceremoniously lowered the flag and then neatly folded it under brilliant sunshine.
“A signal of good will and healing and a meaningful step towards a better future,” President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, said on Twitter.
The flag has been a focal point of controversy in South Carolina — birthplace of the Confederacy — since it was raised in the early 1960s atop the State House dome in defiance of the civil rights movement then sweeping the United States.
It was relocated in 2000 to a 30-foot (10-meter) flag pole alongside a memorial to Confederate war dead on the State House lawn.
But it became a lightning rod for outrage after the June 17 killings of nine black worshippers by a young white gunman during a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, in South Carolina.
The dead included Emanuel’s chief pastor Clementa Pinckney, a Democratic state senator.
Dylann Roof, 21, who was indicted on nine counts of murder, had been photographed before the attack brandishing firearms and the Confederate flag.
– Sought race war –
He reportedly sought to ignite a race war, after a year in which the deaths of black men in confrontations with white police officers has dominated American news headlines.
In Washington, FBI director James Comey said Roof should not have been able to purchase the .45 caliber handgun he allegedly used, news media reported.
Roof was arrested on a drugs rap earlier this year and that would have been sufficient to block a gun sale during an FBI-administered background check.
But confusion over where the arrest took place meant the FBI could not get a record of it within three days, after which the gun sale could proceed, The New York Times reported.
“We are all sick this happened,” Comey was quoted as telling journalists at a briefing at FBI headquarters. “We wish we could turn back time.”
By law, the Confederate flag outside the State House could only be removed with the approval of two-thirds of South Carolina’s Senate and House of Representatives.
That came this week, with both houses — dominated by Republicans — voting overwhelmingly in favor of taking it down, after hours of impassioned debate.
Governor Nikki Haley signed the order into law on Thursday, flanked by relatives of the Charleston dead.
“The State House is an area that belongs to everyone and no one should ever drive by the State House and feel pain,” Haley told NBC television.
“I think this is a hopeful day for South Carolina. I think it is a day that we can all say that we have come together as a state.”
– Flag surrounded overnight –
On its final night on the pole, the Confederate flag was surrounded by a barricade and guarded by nearly two dozen state troopers, as police imposed a ban on carrying firearms in the State House vicinity.
Among the crowd overnight was an unidentified middle-aged white man in the uniform of a Confederate infantry soldier.
“I’m disheartened that this flag has been stolen and used for hatred and something divisive, which it is not,” said Terry Hughey, commander of the Columbia branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I always thought of it as love and honor for my ancestors,” he said, quoted in the city’s State newspaper.
But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a major civil rights organization, hailed the flag’s removal.
“By removing the flag, South Carolina not only denounces an odious emblem of a bygone era but also honors the lives of nine students of scripture who were gunned down in a church,” its national president Cornell Brooks said.
Such has been the backlash at the Confederate flag, major retailers no longer stock it, country music acts stopped flaunting and the NASCAR stock car organization — wildly popular in the rural South — appealed to racing fans to stop displaying it.