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Rebel-less S.C. dome

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a solemn, symbolic ceremony that sparked heckling and whistle-blowing, South Carolinians lowered the Confederate battle flag Saturday from atop the Statehouse dome, while raising another nearby.

The political compromise that Gov. Jim Hodges and many state legislators had hoped would end South Carolina's flag fight instead brought out more than 1,500 people eager to vent their disapproval.

"What you will see in the future is a continued struggle and debate in South Carolina centered on that flag," said State Rep. Joseph Neal, chairman-elect of the legislative black caucus.

The Democrat from Hopkins is among black legislators who say the Confederate flag is a racist symbol. They say it is undeserving of display on the Statehouse grounds, especially in a location as prominent as where it was placed Saturday by legislative mandate.

In the noon ceremony broadcast by statewide television, a dozen Confederate re-enactors marched from the Capitol to a recently erected flagpole behind the Confederate soldiers' monument, at busy Main and Gervais streets. As they raised the new flag, two Citadel cadets were marching inside the Capitol with the flag they had just removed from atop the dome.

The cadets delivered it to Hodges in the second-floor lobby. The governor handed it to two representatives of the South Carolina Museum Commission.

The old flag will now go on display in the state museum in Columbia, 38 years after the legislature raised it above the dome as part of a Civil War centennial.

Some of the flag's defenders believe it should have remained atop the Statehouse. Some vow that the legislature will raise it again somebody.

Bringing it down, said state Sen. Bill Branton (R-Summerville), was "the biggest mistake the General Assemby ever made."

But other supporters reluctantly agreed to the flag's removal as long as it was replaced by the smaller, square version flying at the Confederate soldiers' monument.

"This flag that we are putting up is the flag they fought under," said Buck Carpenter, 55, of Trenton, S.C., one of the flag bearers. "It was their rallying point."

Since the legislature agreed to the flag plan in May and Hodges signed it into law, the NAACP is threatening to intensify its economic boycott of South Carolina until the flag is removed from the Statehouse grounds. That threat angered legislators who crafted the compromise, partly in reaction to the NAACP's boycott.

"The mainstream of South Carolina supports it," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston). "The only people we leave behind are the hardliners on either side."

The discord spilled out Saturday, as it has earlier this year, on the Statehouse grounds.

State Law Enforcement Division chief Robert Stewart said police had reported no violence during the ceremony. "We are making progress," he said, as officers urged groups shouting at one another to move along early in the afternoon. Associated Press reported one arrest for assault.

Shortly after noon, police separated dozens of people who were jeering one another over the raising of the new flag on the 30-foot-tall pole behind the soldiers' monument.

Blowing plastic whistles and waving yellow signs that said "Shame," some protested that the new flag is too visible. "Now it is more in our face," said Pat Yeary, a NAACP member from West Columbia.

Saturday morning, she was among an estimated 750 people who marched silently in a NAACP vigil through downtown Columbia.

As the methodic thumping of a drum led the procession up Gervais Street, the Confederate flag was visible, fluttering gently above the hilltop capitol.

Hoots and yelps and Rebel banners propped in the back of pickup trucks greeted the marchers. A group of flag supporters waving flags and wearing the red-white-and-blue emblem from head to toe ran along side, until police stopped them.

"This is our heritage; this is our flag," said Gene Custer, 44, a warehouse worker in Easley, S.C.

His 54-year-old brother, Simpsonville, S.C., truck driver James Custer, said the NAACP won't be satisifed until it erases Confederate symbols from the South.

"The blacks, the African-Americans do not know when to quit," Custer said. "The war is not going away."

But inside the calm of the capitol, Robert Ford, a black senator from Charleston who sponsored the flag legislation, predicted emotions will calm in a few weeks.

"I think people are going to start talking to each other," Ford said, "and that's when people are going to start respecting each others' heritage and culture."