Confederate battle flag: Why South Carolina lawmakers may vote to keep it

South Carolina lawmakers return to the statehouse Monday to officially begin the debate over the Confederate battle flag flying on capitol grounds. 

Tami Chappell/Reuters
A Confederate flag flies at the base of a confederate memorial in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina July 4, 2015.

In the weeks following the shooting at the Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., state lawmakers looked poised to remove the controversial Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds.

But now South Carolina legislators are returning to the State House to formally debate the issue and the end result may not be as decisive as many expected. 

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley expressed her support for the removal of the flag shortly after the shooting, a move that The New York Times described as a “dramatic turnabout” for the governor who had shown little interest in the issue in past years.  

But some support for keeping the Confederate flag remains.

According to a survey of South Carolina lawmakers by The Post and Courier of Charleston, the needed two-thirds majority of 83 members of the house say, "yes," the flag should be removed, 9 say, "no," 11 are undecided, 16 haven’t responded, and 4 refused to answer. If all of the replies other than “yes” are added together, 31 members of the House could potentially or already do think that the flag should stay.

Although the number is less than half of those that are in favor of removing the flag, The Associated Press suggests that the opposing voices have a significant amount of power. It notes that the last time South Carolina lawmakers debated this issue, they became entangled over the details of what to replace the flag with and where else the Confederate symbol might appear.  

Both the South Carolina Senate Majority Leader and the House Speaker have not taken public positions on the issue. Republican State Sen. Lee Bright is raising money in defense of the flag by selling Confederate flag bumper stickers that say “keep your hands off my flag.” He also began a petition calling for the Confederate flag to be kept at the Capitol. He writes, “Let’s stand together and preserve a piece of our history that symbolizes states’ rights.”

And the response from constituents has also been mixed.

“There are a lot of folks who would like to see the matter resolved and remove the unfortunate spotlight that’s been placed on our state. And there are others who can view it simply as a symbol of heritage and are very upset that we would…’cave in’ to those who would do otherwise,” State Sen. Larry Martin told USA TODAY. 

A recent Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll conducted two weeks after the shooting, found that Americans nationwide are evenly divided on this issue. Forty-two percent said that the Confederate battle flag is a racist symbol and should be removed from state flags and other locations. But 42 percent said the flag is representative of Southern history and heritage and not racist.

However, a CNN/ORC poll released three days later said that 57 percent of Americans see the flag is a symbol of Southern pride rather than racism. Opinions were sharply divergent among different demographic groups: 66 percent of whites said it represented Southern pride, while only 17 percent of African-Americans said it did. 

Some state lawmakers are interested in “a good, long hardy discussion” where all sides of the debate could be heard, as Republican State Rep. Eric Bedingfield told USA TODAY.  

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