Just 1 in 10 Americans have a positive reaction when they see the Confederate flag, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study.
But for decades, the flag has flown on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, a stark image that has spurred national criticism after nine people were killed in what authorities call a racially motivated mass shooting at a Charleston church on Wednesday.
The flag waved above the South Carolina capitol until 2000, when the state passed a bill banning it from the State House dome and the chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives.
It was then moved to the Confederate Soldier Monument, where it still stands at full-staff due to a legislative requirement.
South Carolina is one of several Southern states that have contended with the racially charged history of the flag’s emblem in the last 25 years. The Pew survey found that while support of the flag is limited, it is much higher among whites who consider themselves Southerners.
The Confederate flag was never the national symbol of the Confederacy. But while other flag designs have faded from popular recollection, the short-lived nation’s “battle flag” came back into white Southern culture during the 1950s, largely in response to the civil rights movement.
In Georgia, the Confederate flag was reintroduced in 1956 during protests against school desegregation. At the University of Mississippi, the flag was flown during student protests about integration in the 1960s.
The flag found a home atop South Carolina’s State House in 1962.
Today, South Carolina is the only state to fly the Confederate flag on its capitol grounds. But many Southern states are still reckoning with the symbol.
The symbol was taken off Alabama’s capitol dome in the early 1990s, after a successful lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center’s case was based on a 1891 statute that only the national and state flags that could legally fly over the state capitol.
In 2001, the state of Georgia redesigned its flag to remove its sizable battle flag element. In 2003, it changed it again, completely eliminating the battle flag.
Mississippi’s state flag still features the Confederate symbol.
Supporters of the symbol claim they have a right to display the flag as an exercise in free speech. They also argue that it is not a symbol of hate, but a recognition of the people who fought and died for their home states.
The arguments have met with mixed success.
A federal judge found in favor of a Tennessee high school’s ban on Confederate clothing in 2009. Most recently, the US Supreme Court found that Texas did not violate the First Amendment when it refused to allow license plates bearing the battle flag.
Nine other states, however, give drivers the battle flag plate option, which honors the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Only 8 percent of Americans surveyed said they display the Confederate flag in their home, office, or on their cars or clothing, Pew found.
And many Americans surveyed by YouGov (38 percent) — and the majority of African-Americans — were against displaying it in public places.
But in South Carolina, state law prohibits the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds. So as the state and country mourn the deaths of nine members of a historically African-American church, the flag continues to fly, untouched and at full-staff.
“At a time like this you have to look back at what we’ve done,” said South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Friday. “Fifteen years ago the General Assembly at the time, they had a conversation. The Republicans and Democrats and everyone came together on a concensus to bring the Confederate flag down off the dome and they put it on a monument out in the front. I think that conversation will probably come back up again.”
Catherine Cloutier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.