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Most Southerners want action on Confederate monuments but are split on what to do

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Southerners are still reckoning with how Civil War dead and segregation-era figures should be honored in public spaces, and a new poll has found divided opinions over what these symbols mean.

A Winthrop University poll of 969 residents in the 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union has found a majority of respondents want some action taken regarding Confederate monuments, but they aren't united as far as what they'd like to see happen.

The college in Rock Hill randomly dialed and questioned residents in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia from Nov. 10-20, and Nov. 26-Dec. 2.

"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 poll director Scott Huffmon. "A strong plurality advocate leaving them as they are."

The results carry an error margin of plus or minus 3.15 percent. Winthrop University is the most consistent surveyor of voter moods in South Carolina, issuing its polls several times a year.

Forty-two percent of the Southerners surveyed said Civil War memorials should be left alone, but 28 percent said they'd like to see them modified with a new plaque that adds historical context. 

About a quarter want to move the statutes to museums, while only 5 percent want to remove them completely.

When it comes to memorials that honor politicians and leaders who supported racial segregation, Southerners were less sympathetic.

Only 30 percent said they favored leaving those statues in public spaces, while 26 percent said they'd like to add a marker.

Another 26 percent said such statues should be put in a museum, while 13 percent wanted them removed completely.

Along racial lines, the splits are even greater. Thirty-seven percent of African Americans polled said statutes of known segregationists should be put in a museum while 25 percent said they'd like them removed. Meanwhile, 30 percent of whites said the statues should stay, compared to 34 percent who would like to see a marker added.

The complexities of the debate played out in Charleston City Hall earlier this year, when some City Council members tried and failed add a plaque to the towering John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square.

The effort stalled when members couldn't agree on the language.

The call to remove Confederate symbols nationwide accelerated in June 2015 when a self-avowed white supremacist — who posed with the Confederate battle flag and revered Confederate symbols — shot and killed nine black worshipers inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.

In response, South Carolina legislators in July 2015 voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from its spot next to the Confederate soldier's monument on the Statehouse grounds.

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For any historic monument to be removed in South Carolina, the Heritage Act requires a two-thirds vote by members of the Statehouse. The law has been in place since 2000. 

Keeping the monuments in place does have supporters outside the Statehouse Dome. The American Heritage Association of South Carolina, a recently formed nonprofit, has been fighting to keep the state law in place as part of a larger effort to preserve monuments.

A group spokesman said the plaque and context addition idea, though it may sound simple, can create issues.

“We’ve never been opposed to plaques. We just don’t want to see editorials masquerading as historical fact,” said Brett Barry, the president of the American Heritage Association.

Barry reiterated that his group believes monuments of all kinds should not be decided by what he called “mob rule.”

Additionally, the group has also called on lawmakers to add a provision to the Heritage Act to allow illegally removed monuments to be put back in place within 90 days.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Henry McMaster stated he supported the Heritage Act "as it is."

That has not stopped state lawmakers from challenging the law. State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, has pre-filed a bill for the legislative session that begins in January that would eliminate the Heritage Act.

The efforts to remove Confederate symbols were renewed again after last year's violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where one person was killed and dozens were injured after a man drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist marchers.

In North Carolina, the state's flagship university is in turmoil over what should be done with "Silent Sam," a bronze Confederate statue seen by some as a symbol of racism and seen by others as a historical monument.

Protesters pulled down Silent Sam down in August, damaging it and forcing University of North Carolina officials to determine its fate. No consensus has been reached.

The Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this year reported some 110 monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy have been removed nationwide since the summer of 2015, but it also found 1,740 Confederate monuments, street names and other symbols still stand in public spaces.

The list, which has been continuously updated since its release, counts 195 symbols in South Carolina, including 13 in Charleston County, where nine are streets named after Confederate leaders.

With 38, Richland County has the most Confederate symbols in the state, where 29 are roads and highways, according to the count.

The SPLC began tracking the symbols after the 2015 shooting in Charleston. Its first "Whose Heritage?" report in 2016 found 1,853 Confederate symbols nationwide.

What these symbols even mean to Southerners is up for debate.

While half of all respondents in the Winthrop poll said they view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride, a sharp racial divide remains. The survey found 55 percent of whites view it as Southern pride but 64 percent of African Americans view it as a symbol of racial conflict.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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