A historic moment played out Friday morning in Columbia, South Carolina, where all eyes were pointed toward a flag that hung limp outside the statehouse. The Confederate battle flag, which sparked renewed debate in the state since the June 17 massacre at a historic African-American church in Charleston, was ceremoniously lowered in a symbolic gesture of empathy, progress and healing.

Just after 10 a.m. EDT, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appeared on the steps of the Statehouse and shook hands with relatives of the victims of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church three weeks ago. Under a clear blue sky, onlookers chanting “take it down” watched as an honor guard of seven state troopers marched out to the flag and surrounded the small barrier that separated the flagpole from the public. The flag appeared to lower from a mechanism fixed to the top of the pole.

The crowd erupted in cheers as the honor guard grabbed the flag and unhooked it from the rope that held it in place. They carefully folded and rolled the flag before stepping away from the pole. The flag was marched across statehouse grounds and handed over the director of the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where it will be displayed.

Large crowds had assembled outside the statehouse well before 10 a.m. to watch the flag-lowering. Onlookers were kept behind barriers as law enforcement stood guard near the flagpole, located on a patch of green grass near a Confederate memorial. The flag had been moved to the lawn in 2000 from its previous location atop the statehouse dome after civil rights activists successfully lobbied to have it taken down.

Many wondered how the flag would actually be lowered, as its pole appeared to have no pulley system that a person on the ground could use to lower it.

Among the throngs gathered outside the statehouse were those who supported removing the flag, considered by many to be a symbol of slavery and oppression, but also those who believe it represents Southern pride and heritage. Some protesters appeared at the ceremony carrying Confederate flags over their shoulders.

The flag has sparked a national debate over the power of symbolism and historical meaning in the wake of a church shooting in Charleston that left nine people dead, including the church’s well-known pastor and state senator. It soon emerged that the shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, harbored white supremacist views and embraced the Confederate flag as a symbol of his hate for black people.

Lawmakers debated removing the flag this week in Columbia and ultimately voted Thursday on a bill to have it taken down after more than 50 years of flying on or near the statehouse. The final vote was 94 to 20, well above the two-thirds majority needed to get the bill before the governor for signing.

Haley signed a law Thursday to remove the battle flag from the statehouse grounds. "This is a story about the history of South Carolina and how the action of nine individuals laid out this long chain of events that forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness looks like,” she said.