Memory  /  Study

Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy

A Southern Poverty Law Center study identified over 1,500 publicly-displayed symbols of the Confederacy in the South and beyond.
Southern Poverty Law Center

For decades, those opposed to public displays honoring the Confederacy raised their objections, but with little success. A notable exception was a Southern Poverty Law Center suit that, relying on an obscure state law, led to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Alabama Capitol in 1993. Another was a 2000 compromise between South Carolina lawmakers and the NAACP that moved the flag from its perch above the Capitol dome to a monument on the State House grounds.

But everything changed on June 17, 2015 — just five days short of the 150th anniversary of the last shot of the Civil War.

That day in June, a white supremacist killed nine African-American parishioners at the “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston, a place of worship renowned for its place in civil rights history.

As the nation recoiled in horror, photos showing the gunman with the Confederate flag were discovered online. Almost immediately, political leaders across the South were besieged with calls to remove the flag and other Confederate symbols from public spaces.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear that hundreds of public entities ranging from small towns to state governments across the South paid homage to the Confederacy in some way. But there was no comprehensive database of such symbols, leaving the extent of Confederate iconography supported by public institutions largely a mystery.

In an effort to assist the efforts of local communities to re-examine these symbols, the SPLC launched a study to catalog them. For the final tally, the researchers excluded nearly 2,600 markers, battlefields, museums, cemeteries and other places or symbols that are largely historical in nature.