Haywood commissioners wade gingerly into Confederate flag fray
About 20 Southern heritage supporters lined a bench of Haywood County’s historic courtroom in Waynesville Monday, a show of force county commissioners were likely prepared for as they took on the perpetually controversial issue of Confederate flags: are they a symbol of hate or of heritage?
Some wore suits; some wore jeans and T-shirts; and a couple others sported beards and leather biking vests.
The mixed-matched gathering came to talk to county leaders about their passion for the Confederate battle flag and present their argument for why the board should allow a pint-sized version of the emblem to adorn the base of a Confederate war memorial on the courthouse lawn.
The board of commissioners heeded the advice of several Confederate flag supporters and will spend the next few weeks researching the history and precedent surrounding the display of the controversial flag before deciding whether to permit it on county property. Until then, the flags will continue to be prohibited.
“If you create a policy, you need to make sure that policy applies to everyone across the board,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “I think we probably need to do a little more research into this matter.”
The battle over the flag began in May. The mysterious but regular disappearance of tiny Confederate flags decorating the memorial outside the courthouse was the first shot fired. In rebellion, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans kept replacing the flags. A flag would go in the ground and, soon enough, would be pulled up by an anonymous critic of what the flag has come to stand for over the decades.
The county quickly became involved after receiving an email from a local attorney saying he found the flag offensive and asking county leaders to take action. County Manager Marty Stamey instructed county employees to pull up the flags whenever they saw them on county property.
Not long after, word about the county’s actions reached Confederate flag supporters who have protested their removal for weeks. Monday’s county meeting was the first opportunity for the county commissioners and Confederate flag supporters to come together in an open dialogue.
Commissioners avoided expressing an opinion about the flags themselves but were rather more concerned about with what the policy could mean for other symbols.
“Are you required then to allow all flags?” inquired Mark Swanger, chair of the board of commissioners.
County Attorney Chip Killian replied that he believed so but the matter might be better suited for a court to decide. In theory, a new policy regarding displays on county property could open the way for any flags — communist flags, the anarchist flag or the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) flag. But, if the county outlaws all flags on its property, the world flags that typically decorate the courthouse for the Folkmoot international festival or the miniature American flags around the other war memorials could become illegal to display as well.
“I don’t think the county can allow positions to be taken that favor one viewpoint over another,” Killian said.
The board seemed open to possibly permitting the flag to mark the Confederate memorial for a short period of time — such as on Confederate Memorial Day on May 10. But, for now, the county plans to continue to gather information and draft a policy in time for its Sept. 10 meeting.
“I respect their decision,” said Derrick Shipman, commander of the Julius Welch Camp, the Haywood County division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I don’t have a problem with them waiting” and doing more research.
Although there were actually four different Confederate flags, the one most commonly known today is the Confederate battle flag, which some incorrectly refer to as “the stars and bars.” Battle flag supporters contend that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage that has been unduly marred by vicious hate groups such as the KKK.
“We see the flag as a Southern culture without political or racial connection,” said Wayne Justice, a Confederate supporter who addressed the commissioners Monday.
Kip Rollins, a Haywood residents and leader within the Southern Historical and Heritage Preservation Society, relayed similar sentiments. The flag is a veterans’ flag, just as the American flag represents the service of veterans in more recent wars, including World War II and Vietnam, Rollins said.
“The Confederate flag has been used with half-truths and been exploited by those who misrepresent it,” Rollins said. “This flag does not in anyway intend to injury in anyway possible.”
Rollins concluded his speech by asking the commissioners to let the Confederate battle flag fly.
Emotion welled up in the voice of one Confederate flag supporter, Shipman, as he talked about the significance the flag holds for him and other descendents of Civil War soldiers.
“We are not trying to make a political statement or a social statement; we are just trying to honor these men,” Shipman said. “I don’t think we are asking too much.”
Something that all the speakers had in common was their overwhelming connection to their Southern roots and the general eloquence with which they expressed it.
If the commissioners take away the right to display the Confederate battle flag, then what next, asked Thomas Willis, executive director of the Southern Legal Resources Center, a nonprofit that advocates for citizens involved in issues regarding Southern heritage.
“First, the flag in front of the memorial and then the monument,” Willis said, while standing on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse last week advocating for the Confederate flag.
On Monday, Willis simply asked commissioners to let people commemorate their heritage.
“Don’t not let people honor their ancestors,” Willis said.