With widespread demands to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol building in the wake of the Charleston church shooting, debate over the real meaning of the flag has returned to the public consciousness.
The Battle Flag for the Army of Northern Virginia – often called the Confederate flag, though it was never the Confederacy’s national flag – is seen as either a symbol of southern pride or one of slavery and racism. Holders of the latter viewpoint, who have been using the hashtags #ConfederateFlag and #TakeItDown on Twitter, are saying that the time has come to remove the flag from capitol grounds, but popular opinion and legal obstacles may stand in the way.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, called the flag “a symbol of racial hatred” in a Twitter post, and demanded its removal. Jeb Bush, 2016 Republican candidate, called for South Carolina to follow Florida's example.
“My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear,” said the former governor of Florida. “In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.”
Texas senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz was less willing to commit to a stance, calling the issue “a question for South Carolina” at an Iowa campaign event, the New York Times reported.
“I understand the passions that this debate evokes on both sides,” Mr. Cruz later said. “Both those who see a history of racial oppression and a history of slavery, which is the original sin of our nation.... But I also understand those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states – not the racial oppression, but the historical traditions.”
These historical traditions come to mind for about 9 percent of Americans when they see the Confederate flag, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center. The survey found that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have a positive reaction to seeing the Confederate flag displayed, while 30 percent have a negative reaction. Some 60 percent either have no reaction or said they did not know how they felt.
The same survey showed that nearly half of all white respondents call states’ rights the main cause for the Civil War, suggesting that for many, the Confederacy is seen as more than the incarnation of racial oppression and slavery. A more recent survey showed that only about a quarter of Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, while over a third see it as one of southern pride.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) defended the flag’s place at the capitol in an interview with CNN, but said the debate did not belong in the conversation over the Charleston shooting.
"We're not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It's him ... not the flag," he said.
The question of taking down the flag is not only fraught with social and political complications; it also involves legal and logistical ones, and these may be the real barrier, according to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
“In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag. Only the General Assembly can do that," Ms. Haley's press secretary told ABC News.
The press secretary was referring to a law passed in 2000 – a compromise between those wishing to remove the flag from the capitol’s dome, where it stood since 1962, and those wishing to preserve it. The law stipulated that the flag be taken off the dome, but that it be flown instead on a flagpole on the State House grounds near the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument. Without a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly, the flag cannot be lowered, removed, or changed.