Scene from recent #TakeEmDown901 rally at Memphis’ Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. Photo by Andrea Morales

A deeper dive into an eye-opening Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll showing most Americans are fine leaving Confederate monuments alone provides some insight on the quest to remove the two standing in downtown Memphis.

The poll, conducted days after violence broke out at an August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where counterprotestor Heather Heyer, 32, was killed revealed 54 percent of adults agree Confederate monuments “should remain in all public spaces.” A closer look at the results — separated by political party, race, geography, class and words associated with Confederate symbols — helps explain the chasm between those who says take them down now and leave them alone.

The poll of 2,149 respondents, including 874 Democrats and 763 Republicans, shows:

  • 27 percent of all respondents said Confederate monuments should be removed from all public spaces (i.e. parks, public squares, court houses,) while 54 percent said they should remain in all public parks, public squares and courthouse.
  • 11 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats felt they should be moved.
  • 9 percent of President Donald J. Trump voters agreed with removal.

39 percent of minorities said Confederate monuments should be removed, compared with 20 percent of whites.

Word association: Heritage or hate?

When asked which words respondents associate with the Confederacy, 40 percent said “heritage.”

For Trump voters, that percentage soared; the notion of heritage resonated with a whopping 64 percent of Trump voters. And minorities are more likely to associate the word “racism” with the Confederacy at 36 percent, compared with 15 percent of whites who associate the pro-slavery secessionist government with racism.

The older the respondent was, the more likely she or he was to associate the Confederacy with heritage. The connection polled at 59 percent of those 65 and older, 50 percent of those 40 and older and 25 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 39.

More Midwesterners, 47 percent, think of heritage when they think of the Confederacy than 42 percent of Southerners who thought so. In the Northeast, 36 percent associate the secessionist government with heritage as does 33 percent of the West. And 48 percent of respondents identifying as Evangelical Christians chose heritage as their chief association with the Confederacy.

Violence on both sides?

On the question of whether “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, Virginia, amounted to rioting and intimidation by white nationalists and neo-Nazi rally organizers, and mostly peaceful left-wing counter protests, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t disagree more.

For Democrats, 45 percent said the white nationalists were violent and the counter protesters mostly peaceful, but only 14 percent of Republicans thought so.

Overall, 31 percent, regard Charlottesville as “an even mix of rioting & intimidation by white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally organizers, and left-wing counter protesters.”

Immigrants a net good or not?

On the question of whether immigrants threaten American society or strengthen it, most people, 65 percent, said they strengthen society. Democrats were much more likely (83 percent) to think immigrants make America better than Republicans (45 percent), with fewer Trump voters thinking so (39 percent).

Nearly half — 48 percent — of born-again or evangelical Christian respondents said immigrants threaten traditional American beliefs and customs, compared to 28 percent of non-evangelicals.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis

Indeed, in this city where #TakeEmDown901 launched a fight to remove statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park and Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park, many Memphians don’t understand the monuments removal issue at all, said Beverly Robertson, a Tennessee Historical Commission member. She presented at a Tuesday night Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) community meeting at BRIDGES where 70 residents trudge through the rain to figure it all out.

“We wanted to build awareness so people don’t have to say, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’” said Robertson, noting Tennessee is home to many Confederate battle grounds and burial sites, and Civil War re-enactments are a popular past-time for many residents. “But what does the Old South mean to me? It means slavery, being hung, lynched.”

Historian Bill Black told MLK50 lingering controversy stems from the fact Forrest was a man who became a millionaire in the slave trade, whose troops massacred a couple hundred U.S. soldiers (mostly black) at Fort Pillow when they were trying to surrender, and who was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. And Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy whose Articles of Secession make clear Southern states were leaving because they wanted to preserve the institution of slavery.

Davis called blacks “our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.” In arguing blacks were unfit for freedom, he said “the innate stamp of inferiority is beyond the reach of change.”

The City of Memphis lost an opportunity Tuesday to seek removal of the Davis statue by failing to file a timely waiver with Tennessee Historical Commission, The Commercial Appeal reports. Folks were under the impression the mayor’s office was acting to remove both statues, but City Attorney Bruce McMullen indicated the focus has been on Forrest. Now, the Davis statue could wind up standing there for at least another year because of this.

Quoting McMullen, the Commercial Appeal wrote: “The administration must wait to file the application until the City Council approves removal — a vote scheduled for Oct. 3. That means activists’ hopes of the Historical Commission approving the city’s waiver at its next Oct. 13 meeting are unlikely, punting a commission vote on the Davis statue to February at the earliest.”

Moreover, the mayor’s communications staff has asked local clergy to sign a letter to the commission seeking removal of the Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park. As of midday Thursday, 163 clergy members representing nearly 90 congregations and faith communities and signed on. Part of the letter reads:

“By no means are we seeking to erase history. It is imperative that we understand history; the foundations of our society, of our country, and our faith traditions are built on that. But it is also important that we understand historical figures and events in their full context. It was not until 1905 — half a century after the Civil War and in the throes of the implementation of Jim Crow laws across the South — that the statue of Forrest was placed in a public square. This monument to Forrest belongs elsewhere, not in the center of our city’s hub. Beyond the historical inaccuracy and geographic irrelevancy of his monument, it does not represent who we are as people of faith.”

Activists with #TakeEmDown901 who have sought removal of these Confederate have repeatedly bumped heads with Mayor Jim Strickland, who also has said he wants to remove them, but following the legal method since the Tennessee Historical Commission must approve these types of things. In fact, City Council Atty. Allan Wade has said it’s “probably easier to have someone executed by lethal injection” than it is to get a waiver.

“Now maybe the city can find a way to put ego aside and join #TakeEmDown901 in removing the statues,” said Tami Sawyer told MLK50, noting her movement has the will and the numbers with 4,650 signatures on a petition seeking statue removal.

Separately, the City Council agreed Sept. 5 to pursue removal by sponsoring an ordinance challenging the constitutionality of the statues. They’ll vote on it at the Oct. 3 meeting.

“The constitutional argument being made is that continuing to have those statues and memorials, that’s not allowing African-Americans to enjoy the park in the same manner as whites can,” said Memphis City Council member Martavius Jones.

If the 29-member commission doesn’t grant the waiver at its Oct. 13 meeting, “that’s when our ordinance takes effect,” Jones said.