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Loudoun Has Seen Confederate Flag Controversy Before

© Leesburg Today - 06/25/2015

Controversy over the public display of the Confederate battle flag may seem like a far-away issue, something for people to deal with in South Carolina, or in Richmond. But the debate has reverberations in Loudoun, and it's a topic that the county has witnessed before.

Calls to remove the banner from the state capitol grounds in Columbia, SC, came after the June 17 fatal shooting of nine people at a historically black church in the city. The reasoning was that the Confederate flag is perceived by many as a hateful symbol associated with the man charged in the deaths, 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

Next came word that Walmart no longer would sell merchandise bearing the flag, a move that was followed by Amazon, eBay and Sears.

Then Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday ordered the image removed from specialty Virginia license plates issued for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their supporters. He based the move on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Texas license plates with Confederate emblems that said that the tags aren't covered by First Amendment protections.

The swiftness of the changes seems unusual to historian Dana B. Shoaf.

""It does seem to have moved rather quickly,"" said Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times Magazine, which is based in Lansdowne.

Shoaf recalled the flap over U.S. Sen. John McCain's comments about the flag in South Carolina during the 2000 presidential campaign, when the Arizona Republican sought his party's nomination. But that died down, as has other such previous criticism.

""I don't recall the furor being as much"" as now, in the age of social media, Shoaf said.

The bill to create the Virginia license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans was submitted in 1999 by Loudoun's then-Del. Joe T. May, but that measure from the Republican didn't allow the flag to be shown on the tags.

The Sons group, however, sued the state in 2002 and won the right to have the flag displayed. Now nearly 1,600 license plates in Virginia show the image.

But McAuliffe said Tuesday that it's time for the Confederate symbol to go.

""Although the battle flag is not flown here on Capitol Square, it has been the subject of considerable controversy, and it divides many of our people,"" McAuliffe said in a prepared statement from Richmond. ""Even its display on state-issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to many of our people.""

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring agreed with his fellow Democrat.

""It's past time to move beyond this divisive symbol, which for so many represents oppression and injustice,"" Herring, who hails from Loudoun, said in prepared statement. ""I applaud Governor McAuliffe for his leadership and will work with him and his team to take the steps necessary to remove the Confederate battle flag from Virginia's license plates.""

After the Sons of Confederate Veterans were allowed to have the flag back on license plates, then-Del. Richard H. Black of Loudoun in 2003 submitted legislation that clarified the matter, but the Republican later pulled the bill from consideration in a House committee.

Black, now a state senator, couldn't be reached to comment, but Virginia Democrats are using the legislation as a campaign tool against him. He is challenged this year by Democrat Dr. Jill McCabe in the 13th District.

The state Democratic Party was preparing Thursday to send out a recorded ""robocall"" in the district on the matter.

""Did you know that your state senator, Dick Black, introduced a bill to ensure that the Confederate battle flag could remain on Virginia license plates?"" the recording asks. ""Senator Dick Black went above and beyond to ensure this symbol of racism and slavery could be on Virginia-issued plates. Even worse, he's now hiding from questions about his support of the Confederate flag.""

Ken Fleming, a longtime Purcellville resident, historian, Civil War buff, gravestone restorer and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, supports the flag, but he's frustrated that some are focused on it rather than on the heinous crime in South Carolina.

""What human being in their right mind would conceive of such an act?"" Fleming asked rhetorically. ""I hope justice comes swiftly to him.""

He said that it's sad that some people or organizations have to bear the results of another person's actions, and that the significance of the Confederate flag has been misinterpreted.

""The flag is not a symbol of anything,"" said Fleming, who noted that he was speaking only for himself, not as a Sons representative. ""To me, it's a banner that led men into battle-and there's nothing more honorable than that.""

Shoaf noted, too, that the flag that most people are offended by is actually not what was used in battle. The battle flag was square, not rectangular.

But he said he doesn't believe the Confederate emblem should be flown in public spaces or be part of state flags: It belongs in museums, or in other cultural or historic sites.

Shoaf said he understands both why blacks could be offended by any sign of the flag and why flag supporters ""appreciate the sacrifices of their forebears.""

No one ""wants to spit on their ancestors' graves,"" he said.

Shoaf also said he wouldn't want to see, for example, the Confederate statute at the courthouse in Leesburg taken down. Perhaps it could be used for a teachable moment, he said, maybe with a plaque added.

After all, Shoaf said, the statue commemorates young men who fought in battle, not someone such as Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

Young soldiers were fighting, at least partly, to uphold the institution of slavery, he said, but they weren't racist masterminds.

""It's not right, but they were brought up in a culture that told them it was right,"" Shoaf said.

Phillip E. Thompson, president of the NAACP's Loudoun Branch, however, said his organization thinks the statute should come down, or at least be balanced with more information about slavery's part in the Civil War.

There were slaves sold on the courthouse steps, he said.

""Of course we don't like that statue,"" he said.

Thompson said that the statue wasn't put there as just a memorial; it was ""put there to send a message.""

Really, he said, it probably should be moved Ball's Bluff National Cemetery: It shouldn't be at the seat of power of a county that's seen tremendous growth in its minority population.

This is an issue that's come up before. For example, Leesburg lawyer John Flannery called for the statue's removal in 2013.

He said that the edifice can seem ominous, especially since the depiction of a soldier has an outstretched rifle.

""What kind of a signal does that send to you if you're a person of color in the South?"" he asked rhetorically in a broadcast on Washington, DC, television station WUSA.

The statue has remained, of course, but Leesburg in December 2005 removed welcome signs bearing the logos of civic groups after the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that it be added to the signs. Town leaders said the Confederate flag was not something they wanted on the roads greeting residents and visitors along with the images of organizations such as the Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions clubs.

The whole matter has gotten out of hand when the talk turns to removing statues, said Ben Jones, who lives in Rappahannock County.

Jones is best known for his portrayal of the mechanic ""Cooter"" in the ""Dukes of Hazzard"" television series. He's a life member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and he's spent the past few days as the group's spokesman on the flag issue, appearing on cable TV talk shows and responding to inquiries from various print and online media outlets.

He noted that the backlash against the flag is an emotional response to the Charleston incident in which nine black church members were fatally shot.

But Jones said that response has turned to some people wanting every vestige of the Confederacy destroyed.

He likened that kind of assault to Nazis taking over and said the scenario is creating a sort of ""second Reconstruction"" of the American South.

""I call it a frenzy of cultural cleansing,"" Jones said.

He also pointed out that entertainment giant Warner Bros. has decided to stop making replicas of the famous General Lee car from the ""Dukes"" show because it bears an image of the Confederate flag.

""Warner Bros. Consumer Products has one licensee producing die-cast replicas and vehicle model kits featuring the General Lee with the Confederate flag on its roof-as it was seen in the TV series,"" Warner Bros. said in a statement issued Wednesday. ""We have elected to cease the licensing of these product categories.""

That move, along with those of other retailers, has meant a deluge of consumers snapping up any Confederate items they can find. For example, Jones, who operates three ""Cooter""-branded stores in Virginia and Tennessee, said customers have been flocking to his ""Dukes""-themed website to buy merchandise. At least, he said, they did until his website was hacked Wednesday afternoon.

Jones said countless critics have called him a racist recently, as well, despite his former service as a progressive Democratic congressman from Georgia and work for civil rights.

He said that those who use the Confederate flag for hate desecrate it, and that's not something the Sons of Confederate Veterans wants.

And he said people employing the symbol for evil are far outnumbered by those who aren't, especially when one considers that some 70 million have descended from the Confederacy.

However, the trend lately is to be closed-minded about the Confederate flag, Jones said, so it's hard for anyone with a tangible connection to the Confederacy or Southern history to make an impact on the national conversation.

""It doesn't matter what we say,"" he said.

The latest outcry is especially disheartening, Jones said, because the South has moved past segregation and Jim Crow to be a place where Americans, black and white, are working together to create a better future.

""The South has come so far,"" he said.

That's one theory. Another is that we're now revisiting the past.

The latter was the conclusion that A.J. Jelonek reached.

He was an intern for the Loudoun school system during the summers of 2011 and 2012, researching its history, and in a May 15, 2012, blog post, he detailed controversy over Confederate flag images at Loudoun County High School in the late 1970s. He recalled a 1978 incident in which a man chopped flags off the school's sign with an ax to protest ""what he called the 'insensitivity' of school administrators toward black students.""

""We like to think of the past as either better or worse/primitive than it is today,"" Jelonek wrote in an update posted Wednesday. ""It is scary and disheartening to realize the past is not as far away as we wish it to be. Society takes a while to change.""

Staff reporters Margaret Morton and Mike Stancik contributed to this story. It also has been updated to correct two errors: incorrect references to Confederate flags and the location of South Carolina's capital. The ""Stars and Bars"" was the first national flag of the Confederacy and is not the banner that's under scrutiny, and the capital is in Columbia.

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