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WINTHROP POLL: Conflicts continue in SC over Confederate flag

The South Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guard removed the Confederate Battle Flag from the State House grounds during a ceremony in July.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guard removed the Confederate Battle Flag from the State House grounds during a ceremony in July.

South Carolinians remain sharply divided and conflicted about the Confederate flag.

Two-thirds of South Carolinians agree with the General Assembly’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds this summer after nine African-Americans were killed in a Charleston church, a Winthrop University poll released Wednesday found.

But to many in the state where the Civil War began, the Confederate flag remains an emblem of Southern heritage.

The poll found 47 percent of South Carolinians see the flag as a symbol of pride versus 40 percent who see the banner as racially divisive.

The differences of opinion about the Confederate flag’s meaning are stark along racial and political lines.

More than 60 percent of white South Carolinians and nearly 70 percent of Republicans see the Confederate flag as a Southern pride symbol. Nearly three-quarters of African-Americans and about 60 percent of Democrats consider the banner as a sign of racial conflict.

S.C. NAACP president Lonnie Randolph said he sees ignorance in the efforts to preserve Southern heritage. Confederate supporters forget that African-Americans were oppressed as slaves. “The state is suffering from Confederacy withdrawal,” Randolph said. “The state needs a detox.”

However, Terry Hughey, commander for the Columbia-based Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the flag became the scapegoat for the Charleston slayings.

Accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof was photographed with the flag. But, Hughey added, there has been no proof the banner contributed to the killings of an African-American pastor and eight parishioners.

“Anything Confederate, anything Southern has been under a constant barrage,” he said. “That negativity has not helped those of us who believe in the historical aspects of the flag.”

The conflict will continue into the new legislative session in January, when lawmakers debate how to display the flag, now at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

An epiphany

Wednesday’s Winthrop Poll shows how quickly opinions about flying the flag at the State House have reversed.

Last November, six in 10 South Carolinians thought the Civil War icon should remain flying at South Carolina’s most prominent state building, as it had for five decades, according to Winthrop.

But that was before the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June that devastated the country. Authorities brought hate-crime charges against the accused killer, who is white.

In the latest survey, slightly more than half of white respondents thought lawmakers made the right decision in taking down the Confederate flag. More than nine in 10 African-Americans backed the decision.

Half of Republicans supported the flag’s removal, while 83 percent of Democrats agreed with the decision.

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said even while many South Carolinians see the flag as a symbol of heritage, the Charleston slayings were an epiphany. “They saw the pain (the flag) could inflict on other people,” Huffmon said.

That was the realization of S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, who had did not back taking down the flag during her more than four years in office until the Charleston shootings. Haley has received praise for calling for the flag’s removal. On Thursday, for example, she will receive an award for her leadership after the Charleston slayings at a Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations dinner, the governor’s office said.

Haley takes hit with GOP

But not everyone is happy with the Republican. Hughey says the governor, in her second and final term, surrendered to people from outside the state who think the flag is racially divisive. “It’s an affront to say I’m bigoted because I respect the (Confederate) flag,” he said.

Haley’s reputation took a hit from some South Carolinians, according to the latest Winthrop poll.

At 55 percent, Haley’s overall approval rating is unchanged from Winthrop’s February survey. But the potential vice presidential pick lost some backing from fellow S.C. Republicans. Haley received a thumbs up from 68 percent of Republicans in the latest poll, but that was down from 78 percent in February.

Ignoring the flag, the legacy of slavery and the struggle for civil rights remain divisive topics in South Carolina, the latest Winthrop poll found. By a margin of 51-45, those surveyed said they do not think generations of slavery and discrimination have made it difficult for African-Americans to climb the economic ladder.

Now that the flag has been removed, some South Carolinians might be saying that African-Americans should stop complaining that others are limiting their economic opportunities, Huffmon said. “They think folks will no longer have that excuse.”

The NAACP’s Randolph sees something else in those numbers — a lack of respect for the plight of African-Americans. “It proves there’s a slow process in changing hearts and minds,” he said.

Winthrop surveyed 963 South Carolinians by landline and cell phones between Sept. 20 and 27 for the poll. The poll’s margin of error was was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Other Winthrop poll findings

▪  Senators: Support for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican running for president, has fallen since February. His overall approval rating is 40 percent, down from 45.5 percent seven months ago. Graham’s approval among Republicans tumbled even more, falling to 46 percent from 60 percent. Approval of South Carolina’s other U.S. senator — Tim Scott, R-North Charleston — remained unchanged at 53 percent, while falling slightly among Republicans to 68 percent.

▪  Gay marriage: Half of South Carolinians do not think same-sex marriages should be legally valid despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing them. But just a third of those surveyed said county clerks and probate judges should be allowed to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of their personal beliefs.

▪  Roads: An overwhelming majority of South Carolinians — 84 percent — think the state should spend money on repairing existing roads rather than building new ones.