Cheers and applause erupted as the Confederate battle flag was removed Friday from the South Carolina Capitol, ending a decades-long fight that was reignited after the murders of nine members of a historically black Charleston church.
"Take it down! Take it down!" the crowd chanted as an honor guard from the South Carolina Highway Patrol marched toward the flag pole.
Two troopers reeled the flag down and folded it as onlookers took photos and broke out in song, while others bellowed, "USA! USA!" They handed the flag to a black trooper, who brought it to the steps of the Statehouse and handed it to a state archivist.
The dignified ceremony, which lasted less than 10 minutes, was a shocking end to a complicated chapter in the history of the American South. The rapid pace at which lawmakers debated whether to remove the controversial rebel banner — and then voted to do just that — stunned observers.
Obama tweeted afterwards that it was "a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future."
An emblem of Civil War and Southern pride, the flag is also widely viewed as a symbol of racism. It was first raised above the South Carolina State House in Columbia to protest the civil rights movement in 1962. Since then, opponents of have been campaigning to take it down. In a 2000 compromise, the flag was moved to a flagpole on the Capitol grounds, and the state legislature was given the sole power to lower it.
Throngs of people gathered ahead of the flag being taken down. Lawmakers and relatives of the victims of the church massacre stood on the steps of the Statehouse to watch, many with tears in their eyes. Gov. Nikki Haley, who had called for the lowering of the flag, stood among them, but did not speak. She clapped as the flag, tied up with string, was handed to the state archivist.
The South Carolina Department of Public Safety estimated the crowd size to be between 8,000 and 10,000 people.
The historic moment came after intense pressure on lawmakers to respond to the June 17 massacre, in which an avowed racist, Dylann Roof, allegedly opened fire on a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Church. The killing sparked a nationwide debate about the flag, and led many companies to stop manufacturing or selling items with its image.
The state House of Representatives voted early Thursday to take the flag down, and Haley later in the day signed that measure into law. She said she would give pens used to sign the bill to families of the church victims.
Eventually, the flagpole itself is to be torn down as well, but there is no timetable for that.
A van took the flag to the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, which Haley called "its rightful place."
"No one should drive by the Statehouse and feel pain. No one should drive by the Statehouse and feel like they don't belong," she told TODAY on Friday morning.