COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed legislation on Thursday to permanently remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds, following an emotional debate spurred by the massacre of nine black churchgoers last month.
Haley signed the bill into law in the State House Rotunda before an audience of legislators and dignitaries shortly after 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT), and her office said the flag would be taken down at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT) on Friday.
The rebel banner will go to the “relic room” of South Carolina’s military museum in Columbia, the state capital.
“The Confederate flag is coming off the grounds of the South Carolina State House,” Haley said to cheers and applause. “We will bring it down with dignity and we will make sure it is put in its rightful place.”
The flag, carried by Confederate troops on the losing side in the 1861-1865 Civil War, is seen as a symbol of racism and slavery by many. But others proudly hail it as an emblem of Southern heritage.
The flag has flown for 54 years at the capitol of the first state to secede from the United States, and the state where the Confederacy fired the first shots of the Civil War, in Charleston.
South Carolina plans to keep Friday’s flag relocation “as low-key as the national media will let us,” said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams.
Among those attending the signing were relatives of “the Charleston 9,” the black men and women gunned down on June 17 at a landmark church in an apparently racially motivated slaughter.
Haley paid special tribute to the victims’ families’ forgiveness of the white man charged in the killings, Dylann Roof, 21. She said their inspirational actions played a major role in the law’s passage, and said a pen from the signing would go to each of the families.
Also joining Haley, a Republican of Indian descent who is South Carolina’s first non-white chief executive, were predecessors who supported the measure.
The governor signed the bill after the state House of Representatives gave it final approval in the wee hours of Thursday after 13 hours of emotional debate.
Before Thursday’s signing, a small crowd gathered on the State House lawn waving “Take Down the Flag” signs as drivers honked their horns.
Others snapped photos on the last full day the banner will fly from its pole at a memorial to Confederate war dead.
“I love this,” said Hammie Johnson. “It’s about time people came to the realization of what that flag represents to us as African-Americans, and that’s slavery.”
He and his wife, Esther, watched the House debate the bill on television. “We watched all of it, every last bit,” he said.
Jim Felder, 76, one of the first blacks to be elected to state House, said he never thought he would live to see the flag come down.
“I‘m so proud today. ... I thought maybe my grandchildren would get it down,” he said.
He and others credited Haley with lobbying Republican state representatives on Wednesday to pass the bill. “She was just trying to hold them together, like herding cats,” he said, adding that he had new respect for the governor.
The House overwhelmingly approved the legislation after 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) on Thursday. The Senate passed it earlier in the week, also by a huge margin. Both chambers are Republican-controlled.
The flag controversy has extended across the U.S. South as the Charleston killings spurred a wave of repudiation by politicians and businesses.
In Washington, Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday abruptly canceled a vote on a measure that would allow the flag to be flown in cemeteries operated by the National Park Service, after an outcry by opponents.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest described the bipartisan flag vote as a sign of “progress.”
He added, “Republicans in Congress, however, seem to have values and priorities that lie elsewhere,” a reference to the park service bill.
Writing by David Adams; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Jonathan Oatis