The Confederate flag remains a racially divisive symbol in South Carolina more than a decade after a bitter feud ended with it being moved to the State House’s grounds from atop its dome.
Most whites say the rebel banner should continue flying on the State House grounds; most African Americans say it should be removed, according to an exclusive Winthrop poll asked for The State.
Overall, 61 percent of South Carolinians said the flag should continue to fly where it is, while 33 percent say it should not.
When broken down by race, three out of four whites – 73 percent – said the flag should continue flying, while 61 percent of blacks said it should come down.
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Fifty-three percent of whites thought strongly it should stay up, while 51 percent of blacks said it should come down.
“That’s a divide that most people expected,” said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop poll, which surveyed 852 S.C. adults from Nov. 9-16.
“The debate over the flag is carried on by people at the extremes,” Huffmon said. “Some see it as a living testament, paying respect to slavery. Other see it as a point of honor, honoring the (Confederate) dead.”
The poll also asked respondents to rate their feelings on the flag. The results showed that nearly a third of South Carolinians have neutral feelings about the flag.
“Most people in the middle see it as a historical marker,” said Winthrop’s Huffmon.
But nearly 60 percent of blacks felt negatively about the flag, most of them very negatively. Thirty-seven percent of whites felt positively about the flag compared with 26 percent who felt negatively.
‘Symbols of our past’
The racial divide over whether the flag should continue to fly on the State House grounds shows the banner’s complex history still inspires some and offends others.
Despite the compromise that brought it down from the State House dome, opposition to the flag could stem from bitterness over the flag’s current placement, said Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political scientist.
Flying the flag on the State House dome gave the impression that the state still was ruled under that flag, she said. Lowering the flag to the State House grounds made it more visible from outside, even though it placed it in a more historical context, next to the state’s memorial to Confederate soldiers.
The flag flies a dozen paces from the intersection of heavily trafficked Gervais Street and Columbia’s historic downtown Main Street.
Before the compromise, the flag was far more prominent, displayed in both legislative chambers, in the rotunda and on the dome.
Given that display, moving it to the historical monument was a huge step, said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, adding he took a lot of heat from conservatives who did not support the compromise.
Martin said he understands why blacks still oppose the flag’s display, given the history of “bitter hatred” expressed toward African Americans after Reconstruction.
“I don’t believe the generation right behind me really appreciates just how divisive an experience this state had back in the Jim Crow era and the things that were done to black people,” Martin said. “I can understand the animus that a lot of minorities my age and older hold toward any symbol of the old South.”
But, Martin added, it’s “time to move on.”
“We have a history, and I’m not exactly proud of our history in every respect ... (but) we’re not going to rip up all the symbols of our past. It ought to remind us to learn more about them.”
While the racial divide over the flag was expected, the poll’s findings about black attitudes toward the flag may surprise some, Huffmon added.
About one in four blacks said the flag should continue flying – roughly split between blacks who felt that way “strongly” and “somewhat.”
“Some people, who assume that black opinion is monolithic, will actually be surprised” by those findings, Huffmon said.
J.T. McLawhorn, president and chief executive of the Columbia Urban League, said blacks who are OK with the flag flying likely have no personal experience with how the flag was used during and after Reconstruction.
For many African Americans, he said, the flag represents “oppression and terrorism” against them, while white supporters of the flag likely see is as a historical symbol, said McLawhorn, whose Urban League was part of a coalition that organized the protest march against the flag in 2000.
Another possible reason that 27 percent of blacks support leaving the flag flying? Maybe those surveyed remember how bitter the fight was to remove the banner from the State House dome, offered Furman’s Vinson.
“That suggests to me that there are a lot of people who don’t want to stir (the bitter fight) back up.”
Heritage or hate?
The flag’s controversial past resurfaced briefly in October, when Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen and state Rep. Bakari Sellers – their party’s unsuccessful candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively – tried to make the flag a campaign issue heading into the November general election.
The Democrats said the flag should be removed from the State House grounds.
In response, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign accused Sheheen, who never had filed legislation to move the flag, of playing politics with a sensitive issue.
Moving the flag in 2000 followed a bitter, drawn-out struggle.
State lawmakers placed the flag atop the State House dome in 1962 to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial. It flew there with the U.S. and S.C. flags.
The debate over the flag heated up in the 1990s. Supporters defended the flag’s historical value, expressed by some as “heritage, not hate.”
In 1999, the national NAACP announced a tourism boycott of South Carolina because of the flag. The NCAA also has banned some collegiate sporting events from being held in the Palmetto State.
Opponents of the flag mark their ongoing protest with Martin Luther King Day marches on the State House each January.
Debate over the flag recently has turned toward discussion of the boycotts and the economic impact the flag might have on the state.
But, in the Legislature, there has been no controversy about the flag since it was moved from the dome, said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who said he has never been asked about the flag at speaking engagements.
During a gubernatorial debate in October, Haley said corporate chief executives never mention the flag to her as a concern. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley added the state has come a long way in improving its image on racial issues.
“We really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor, when we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator,” Haley said. “That sent a huge message.”
Said Vinson: “From Haley’s perspective, it’s clear that South Carolina is not just full of a bunch of racists who won’t support people who are African American or Indian American.
“She’s right that elections do change that,” added the political scientist.
“But for whites, the Confederate flag has one meaning, and for blacks it has a very different meaning. People still have strong feelings about that symbol.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct attribution to Winthrop poll director Scott Huffmon of the quote: “Some people, who assume that black opinion is monolithic, will actually be surprised.”