Debate over the meaning and appropriateness of the Confederate battle flag has raged in the South in the wake of the Charleston shootings with calls for it to be removed from store shelves and state capitols. But according to a new CNN/ORC poll, public opinion in the United States about the banner has not changed much from where it was 15 years ago.
The poll found that 57 percent of Americans see the flag as a symbol of Southern pride rather than as a representation of racism. A similar poll in 2000 poll found that 59 percent of Americans agreed with that interpretation.
The current debate over the battle flag was revived in the wake of a shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., but the flag has a long and controversial history.
In 1962 – in the early days of the civil rights movement – South Carolina legislators voted to fly the flag at the top of the State House to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Civil War, the Monitor's Harry Bruinius reported.
“It was an act of defiance,” Kenneth Janken, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the Monitor.
“People talk about ‘heritage not hate,’ but I think the context of it was really that it was not celebrating or honoring the sacrifices of soldiers as much as it was asserting an opposition to the civil rights movement.”
In 2000, the flag was removed and placed in memorial next to the building – a compromise reached in response to a business boycott led by the NAACP.
Although American opinions as a whole have remained relatively unchanged, feelings about the flag are more divided when the results of the poll are parsed by race, region, and education.
Among African-Americans, 72 percent see the flag as a symbol of racism, compared to 25 percent of white people, the recent poll found.
The difference is even more stark in the South, where 75 percent of African-Americans see the flag as representative of racism, while only 18 percent of whites agree.
“As the white South was undergoing great upheaval, it became a symbol of white resistance to all these cultural changes,” says Robert Brinkmeyer, director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told the Monitor.
Another divide can be seen among whites along level of education; among those with a college degree, 51 percent said they see it as a symbol of pride. Among white Americans without a college degree 73 percent see it as representative of Southern pride.
A slight majority of Americans favors removing the Confederate flag from government property that isn't part of a museum with 55 percent for the idea and 43 percent against against it. When asked whether private companies should choose not to sell or make items with the Confederate flag, 50 percent are in favor and 47 percent are opposed.
Since the Charleston shooting, a number of retailers have decided to pull Confederate flag items from their stores including eBay, Amazon, and Walmart.
While a vote to remove the flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds has not been conducted, a poll found support for the move exists among lawmakers.
On Saturday, activist Bree Newsome was arrested for climbing up the flagpole and removing the flag by hand.
"I just felt very strongly that we needed that moment to say enough is enough," Ms. Newsome said in an interview with Good Morning America Thursday. "We want an end to the hate."