Politics & Government

Should Confederate monuments be removed? The South is split, poll finds

The rise and fall of Silent Sam

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.

Southerners are split on what to do with controversial monuments to Civil War and segregation-era figures.

Most want to do something about the monuments.

But they don’t agree on what, according to a new poll by Winthrop University.

Forty-two percent of Southerners surveyed said monuments to Confederate soldiers should be left alone, according to the Winthrop Poll released Wednesday. Another 28 percent said plaques should be added to the monuments to provide context and historical interpretation.

Nearly a fourth of those surveyed said the statues should be moved to museums. Only 5 percent want to remove them completely.

“All told, 56 percent want to do something other than simply leave the monuments and statues as they are, but these folks are very divided on what should be done,” said Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon. “A strong plurality advocate leaving them as they are.”

Southerners are less supportive of statues to leaders who supported racial segregation.

Only 30 percent said those statues should be left in public spaces. A fourth said plaques or markers should be added to the statues. Another fourth said the statues should be put in a museum. Meanwhile, 13 percent said to remove them.

“Statues to avowed segregationists are more controversial than monuments to the Confederate fallen,” Huffmon said of the results. “A much slimmer plurality advocate leaving them as is while nearly as many would like to add a marker for historical context or move them to museums.

“While only 13 percent wish to remove them entirely, it is notable that this is more than twice as many people who want Confederate memorials wholly removed,” he said.

The poll surveyed almost 1,000 residents of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The sample’s size did not allow for breakdowns by individual states, Winthrop said.

Battles over the battle flag

The Confederate flag is viewed unfavorably by 46 percent of those surveyed by the poll, while 37 percent see it somewhat or very favorably. Forty-seven percent see the flag primarily as a symbol of Southern pride, while 38 percent view it as an emblem of racial conflict.

Racial views on the flag are starkly split.

Forty-four percent of whites view the flag favorably, while 58 percent of African-Americans have very unfavorable views of the flag.

A majority of whites — 55 percent — hold a “Southern pride” view of the flag while most African-Americans — 64 percent — see racial conflict when they look at the flag.

Opinions on the region’s monuments also split along racial lines.

Forty-seven percent of white Southerners want to see Confederate monuments left as they are, and 34 percent say the same of segregationist leaders.

A majority of black Southerners want to see both Confederate — 55 percent — and pro-segregation memorials — 62 percent — taken down.

Views on the cause of the Civil War also are split.

A fourth of all respondents said the war was caused by slavery; 21 percent said states’ rights; and half said both were equal causes.

What does that mean for race relations in the U.S. today?

Forty-one percent say race relations are poor, and another 38 percent told Winthrop that race relations are “only fair.” Majorities of both blacks and whites see race relations as getting worse.

S.C. monument debate

The debate about the Confederate past has been particularly acute in South Carolina.

The State House in Columbia flew the Confederate flag on its dome from 1962 to 2000 and prominently featured the flag on its grounds until 2015, when it was removed after a racially motivated mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

The State House grounds also are home to a Confederate soldiers’ monument at Gervais and Main streets, as well as monuments to other controversial figures in S.C. history including:

Wade Hampton III, a Confederate general and slave owner who was South Carolina’s first post-Reconstruction governor — from 1876 to 1879 — and, then, a U.S. senator — from 1879 to 1891.

Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, governor from 1890 to 1894 and U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918. Tillman did not fight in the Civil War but was the architect of the state’s 1895 Constitution, which stripped blacks of most of their post-war civil rights. Tillman also helped found Clemson and Winthrop universities, both of which have administrative buildings named after Tillman.

James Marion Sims, a surgeon hailed as the father of modern gynecology but lambasted for performing experimental surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is among those who have called for the State House bust of Sims to be removed.

Strom Thurmond, the state’s governor from 1947 to 1951 and a U.S. senator from 1954 to 2003. Early in his lengthy career, Thurmond was a staunch segregationist, running for president in 1948 for the States’ Rights Democratic Party, the “Dixiecrats” who split from the national Democratic Party over its civil rights plank.

Across the border, the University of North Carolina is embroiled in a debate over what to do about a statue of a Confederate soldier on campus dubbed “Silent Sam.” Protesters pulled the statue off its base in August, and some are calling on the university to replace it.

Christian nation threatened by political correctness?

Among other findings in the Winthrop Poll:

▪ Two-thirds of those surveyed think “’political correctness’ threatens our liberty as Americans to speak to our minds.” Among Republican-leaning Southerners, 84 percent see political correctness as a threat. Among Democratic voters, almost half — 49 percent — aren’t fans of political correctness.

▪ A majority of Southerners — 51 percent — said the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, while 37 percent disagree. Sixty-seven percent of Republican-leaning Southerners say the United States was founded as a Christian nation, while 52 percent of Democrats say it was not.

▪ President Donald Trump has more support in the region than he does nationwide. Forty-four percent of Southerners support Trump versus 48 percent who disapprove of Trump’s job performance. Nationwide, Gallup found 38 percent of Americans supported Trump during the same period, while 60 percent disapproved. Eighty percent of Republicans in the South approve of Trump while 91 percent of Southern Democrats disapprove.

▪ 56 percent of those surveyed say the country is on the wrong track. But whether you agree depends on your party affiliation. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans say the country’s on the right track, while 87 percent of Democrats disagree. On the economy, 56 percent say the country’s economic condition is getting better, while 33 percent see it getting worse.

The Winthrop Poll surveyed 969 residents of 11 Southern states by landline and cellphones from Nov. 10 to 20 and from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.15 percentage points.

York County Judge Jack Kimball threw out a lawsuit filed by a North Carolina man Thursday. Plaintiff Russell Walker demanded county officials put a Confederate flag and other items back in the main courtroom of the York County Courthouse.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.


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