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article imageSouth Carolina set to take down Confederate flag

By Robert MacPherson (AFP)     Jul 9, 2015 in World

The Confederate flag will be gone from the grounds of South Carolina's state house on Friday, three weeks after a mass murder in an African-American church in Charleston once again made it a flashpoint of controversy.

The red, white and blue Civil War-era battle flag has been flying alongside a Confederate war memorial outside the state house since 2000, after years atop the legislature's domed roof.

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.

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged in the killings, had been photographed before the attack with the Confederate flag, which for many is seen as a symbol of hate and racism rather than regional heritage.

"Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am, we will see the Confederate flag come down," Governor Nikki Haley said before signing a law clearing the way for the flag to come down.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks to the media as she asks that the Confederate flag be rem...
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks to the media as she asks that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds in Columbia on June 22, 2015
Joe Raedle, Getty/AFP/File

"We will bring it down with dignity and make that it is put in its rightful place," she said at the signing ceremony in the state capital Columbia, flanked by relatives of the Emanuel church massacre.

The dead included Emanuel's chief pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

By law, the Confederate flag could only be lowered -- and relegated to a museum -- with the consent of South Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature.

That finally came before dawn Thursday when the state's House of Representatives agreed overwhelmingly to remove the flag -- as their Senate colleagues had done at the start of the week.

"It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state," Haley wrote on Facebook after the vote.

Outside the legislature, uniformed state police officers Thursday put up a barricade around the flag.

- Heated debate in Washington -

State Rep. Todd Rutherford and fellow lawmakers talk to the media at the South Carolina state house ...
State Rep. Todd Rutherford and fellow lawmakers talk to the media at the South Carolina state house on July 9, 2015 in Columbia
Sean Rayford, Getty/AFP

As South Carolina prepared to lower the flag, debate reached fever pitch in Washington, where Republicans had introduced a controversial amendment, due for a vote Thursday, that would preserve the right to place the flag on graves on federal property.

Democrats reacted with outrage, with one African-American congressman, Hakeem Jeffries, bringing a Confederate flag to the House floor and insisting it represented not Southern heritage but "racial hatred and oppression."

"Let's choose racial progress over racial poison," he said. "Let's choose togetherness over treason."

Amid the backlash, House Speaker John Boehner scrapped the vote, saying the issue should not become a "political football" and that lawmakers should hold "responsible" discussions about the path forward regarding the flag.

- 'Symbol of hate' -

The vote in the South Carolina House came after more than 13 hours of heated debate, with opponents of the flag defeating a raft of amendments intended to slow down passage of the measure.

"I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday," said Republican Representative Jenny Horne, at times fighting back tears.

For 15 years, the flag has flown alongside a Confederate memorial on the manicured lawn of the Republican-dominated legislature in the southern state where the Civil War erupted in 1861.

But long-standing calls for the removal of the banner were rekindled after the killings in Charleston.

Following last month's shooting, the Confederate flag has already come down outside the Alabama state legislature, and several major retailers across the United States have said they will no longer sell flag-related merchandise.

Members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan are planning a pro-flag rally in the state capital Columbia on July 18.

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