Today’s papers bring us two stories about the conflicts over when and where the public and private display of the Confederate flag may be appropriate.
The first story, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, notes that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has paid to fly flags within sight of Georgia interstates, including one that reachs 30 feet by 50 feet near Tifton.
April Hunt, writing for the AJC, notes that some civil rights activists take less exception to private displays of the flag, than when the state government flew it as part of our state flag.
The DeKalb NAACP President’s statement suggests that much of the sting of the flag as a symbol of racial animus has faded:
“We don’t like it, but they have every right to put it up if they can find someone who wants that mess on their property,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb NAACP. “As long as it’s just a symbol and not an action, it’s just a distraction from how much the world has changed from when that flag represented a real threat.”
Elsewhere, a story from the Associated Press notes that the City of Lexington, Virginia, voted Thursday to ban the flying of any flag other than those of the United States, the Commonwealth of Virginia, or the City itself from city property. That measure is notable for the fact that General Robert E. Lee lies down the hill from Lexington City Hall in Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University, and Stonewall Jackson lies in a nearby cemetery.
Some within the NAACP had a different take on Lexington’s action:
H.K. Edgerton, the former president of the NAACP chapter in Asheville, N.C., said he supported flying the Confederate flag because he wanted to honor black Confederate soldiers. Edgerton, who is black, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with images of those black soldiers.
Contrary to what some people are saying, the Lexington ordinance does not affect private displays. Confederate flags will continue to hang in the Chapel, on the fraternity houses, and frankly, on just about any surface you can see. Young men will leave flags on Traveller’s gravestone and in the family crypt.
Nearly 20 years ago, Lexington fought this fight, proposing to ban the display of the Confederate battle flag in a parade honoring General Jackson. The ACLU intervened on behalf of the marchers and took the city to court.
The main thing that will change in Lexington is that Confederate flags will no longer adorn the utility poles in downtown Lexington for Lee-Jackson-King Day.
Georgia hosts at least two other disputes of where and when it is appropriate to publicly display the Confederate flag.
At an August funeral for SCLC Leader Dr. Howard Creecy at Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery, some attendees were apparently offended at the visibility of the Confederate flag flying above a private memorial within the cemetery, asked for its removal and some have protested it. The cemetery says they cannot order the flag’s removal because the monument belongs to the SCV.
In April, the Dodge County Commission voted to fly the Confederate flag 365 days a year at the courthouse. In Eastman, the flag also flies over a monument to the Confederate dead.
“We’ve been battling this for some time, trying to resolve it without going outside the county,” said John Battle, president of the Dodge County branch of the NAACP, which he said has repeatedly asked the county to remove the flag.
“We don’t have any heartburn about the Confederate flag itself, but we have heartburn because it’s up there on the public property,” he said.
The NAACP has indicated that they would not oppose flying the flag one day a year in Dodge County, as was apparently the original intention. But 365 days is a bit much for their sensibilities. I’m inclined to support the position that the occasional and limited display of the flag, given its proximity to the war memorial, would be honorable, but that insistence upon it flying every day is unreasonable.
In my mind, it’s not about political correctness, but about the role of a flag, as a unifying symbol for a state or nation’s citizens. If a substantial number of the citizens are offended by the government’s choice of a flag, that banner is not doing its job and should be retired. But its role in memorial services and attached to memorial displays doesn’t trouble me.
In August of 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote to former Virginia Governor John Letcher,:
“The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt…. They should … elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.”
Interestingly, the letter is dated 28 August 1865, about five weeks before Lee was inaugurated President of Washington College, now named Washington & Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. Letcher was born in Lexington, graduated from Washington Academy, later W&L, and served on the Board of Visitors for Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Because our state and nation still bear the scars of centuries of racial animus, we cannot say that we have yet healed all dissensions. Perhaps we should heed General Lee’s order to “furl the flag, boys.”