Culture

What Happens When The Contentious Confederate Flag Debate Comes To A Sleepy Virginia Town

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

Last week, following the tragic murder of nine African American worshippers by a white shooter at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, national attention suddenly focused on the favorite emblem of the alleged gunman, Dylann Roof — the Confederate flag.

Over the course of just a few days, calls for the removal of the Confederate battle flag, rightly understood by many as a symbol of racism, from South Carolina State House grounds grew progressively louder, as did requests to take down flags in other parts of the country. Several major companies banished the Dixie banner from their stores, Alabama removed one from its capitol grounds, the National Cathedral promised to take out stained glassed windows featuring the emblem, and even prominent Mississippi lawmakers began recommending that the rebel ensign be expelled from their state flag.

The movement to expunge the Confederate flag from government property was swift and overwhelming, with some expressing disbelief at how quickly the tide was turning against the banner. But hidden within the national-level banter over the flag was another, less-discussed reality: The rush to disavow it was accelerated in part because many Southerners, black and white alike, have opposed the Confederate flag in its various forms for generations — albeit not always successfully.

With this in mind, I traveled to the lazy town of Danville, Virginia, a small city nestled in between the Dan river and the state’s border with North Carolina. Like many Southern towns, Confederate flags are a (relatively) common sight here: About 30 minutes up the road on US-360, a local resident has affixed a Confederate Navy jack to a mailbox — just in case you missed the massive Confederate battle flag flying from a makeshift flag pole a few feet away. I also spotted a few versions of the Stars and Bars as I pulled into town, with an occasional car sporting the emblem as part of a license plate or a bumper sticker.

But Danville’s strained relationship with the Confederate flag, while especially contentious, offers something of a case example for how fights over the banner have traditionally been fought in the South. Last year, long before the current uproar over South Carolina’s flag, Danville residents also engaged in smaller — but no less passionate — debate over the appropriateness of flying a Confederate flag on government property, which currently waves in front of the city-owned Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

It’s easy to miss it at first. When the museum’s flag was finally pointed out to me by a local resident, I noticed that it wasn’t the infamous rebel battle ensign that flies in front of the State House in South Carolina, although it includes the same iconic blue cross, white stars, and red background. Instead, the banner that waves in Danville is the Third National flag of the Confederate States of America, also known as the “blood stained banner” for its distinctive red stripe. You’d be forgiven for not knowing what that is: The flag saw very little action during the Civil War, as it wasn’t introduced until March 4, 1865, just two months before the conclusion of most military actions.

But in the early 1990s, the Danville chapter of the Heritage Preservation Association (HPA), which ardently supports the Confederate flag as a supposed symbol of cultural heritage, began advocating for installing the banner in front of the museum. They argued it was a way to commemorate Danville’s claim to being the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy”: Local records show that the building that now houses the museum was the last place where Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis convened with his Cabinet, just a week before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army at Appomattox.

The group’s efforts ultimately proved successful, and in 1995 a monument to Confederate soldiers — consisting entirely of a cement base with an inscription, a flag pole, and a Confederate flag — was erected on the museum grounds.

The site’s rich Confederate history was not lost on Cara Burton, the current curator of the museum, which includes numerous Civil War exhibits, including a large exhibit on the Confederate flag itself. But when I visited the museum, housed within the plantation home of local tobacco baron William T. Sutherlin, Burton was quick to note that while she has a deep appreciation for Civil War history, she is also keenly aware of the oppression endured by African Americans, a difficult history which the museum also commemorates in numerous displays.

This, she explained, is why museum administrators, after conducting an internal review in 2014, concluded that the flag significantly hampered their attempts to reach a broader audience. Since curators are prohibited from moving the flag without city approval, the museum board sent a letter to the Danville City Council on October 25 of last year, formally requesting that the Confederate flag be moved off the flag pole and into the museum itself.

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

The move, they said, could help both the museum and the city at large.

“[The flag] is a barrier to people coming into this museum,” Burton told me. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s hard to recruit companies and professionals here when you have a Confederate flag flying on city property.”

But unlike the outcry over South Carolina’s flag, where the most influential voices appear to be those opposing it, the museum’s seemingly simple request sparked a fierce debate in the small Southern town, with locals expressing sharply divergent views about what the flag represents. Wayne Byrd, president of the Danville’s HPA, said removing the flag would be “bordering on a hate crime,” and made vague warnings about the potential impact of taking it down.

“This is sort of a Pandora’s box,” Byrd said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I wouldn’t want to open it up if I were on City Council.”

Yet Byrd’s position was not shared by many local residents, an unsurprising development given the town’s stark racial divide. According to the 2010 census, Danville is roughly split between blacks and whites, with 46.7 percent identifying as white non-Hispanic, and 48.3 percent identifying as African American.

Thus, when the City Council began holding town meetings last fall to discuss the flag, several African American leaders made impassioned pleas for its removal. Arguably the most vocal opponent of the flag was Rev. William Avon Keen, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who delivered a speech in which he called the banner a “symbol of hate in the world today.”

“The Confederate flag has been used by many in acts of hate in the process of hate crimes,” he said at a press conference last November, according to the Roanoke Times. “Our citizens do not have to be subjugated to symbols flying on government property that are linked to acts of terror by certain hate groups.”

In a strange twist, the debate over the Confederate flag in Danville turned out to be less about morality, history, or economics, and more about an almost laughably complex question of state law. Although Burton noted that various versions of the Confederate flag have waved on the museum property throughout its history, the flagpole and cement base were specifically erected as a monument to Confederate soldiers, which had to be approved by the city.

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

Fast forward to last year, when the the museum board requested the removal of the flag, and suddenly the “monument” distinction became deeply significant. The Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), which rushed to defend local heritage groups who supported the flag, sent a letter to the city arguing that an obscure section of Virginia law prohibits officials from tampering with a memorial for Veterans, including Confederate veterans. If the city tried to take down the flag, the letter said, then the SLRC — which provides legal services to numerous Confederacy groups throughout the South — would sue.

The argument (or at least the threat of a lawsuit) proved enough to convince the city to back off. After a series of City Council meetings that included speeches arguing both sides of the issue, local officials formally declined the museum’s request last November.

“The Council of the City of Danville … has determined that under Virginia law it does not have the legal authority to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the museum and therefore cannot consider the museum’s request,” the Council’s resolution read.

The decision put the onus of responsibility back on state-level government, with city managers claiming that their hands were tied. Curious, I contacted the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who recently responded to the Charleston shootings by promptly ordering the removal of Confederate flags from Virginia license plates. When asked about the situation in Danville, however, a spokesperson insisted the issue needed to be solved at the local level.

The museum's existing exhibit on the various iterations of the Confederate flag.

The museum’s existing exhibit on the various iterations of the Confederate flag.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

“This is really a conversation that the community has to have,” said Christina Nuckolf, who works in the Governor’s press office. She added that if the city genuinely couldn’t resolve the issue on their own, then “that’s something they need to discuss with their state legislators,” implying the problem could only be remedied by passing a new law at the state level.

But Burton seemed unconvinced that new legislation is the only option for moving the flag into the museum’s already impressive Confederate exhibit. She pointed out that while the cement marker and flagpole constitute an official monument, the Confederate flag itself is actually owned by the local heritage group, which reportedly regularly sells the flag to Confederacy enthusiasts eager to purchase a banner flown over the “last capitol.”

“So that’s a legal question — is it one monument?” she said. “[The heritage groups] are making private profit off of public property.”

Meanwhile, many local residents remain frustrated with the flag’s continued presence. Gregory Hairston, an attorney in Danville and head of the local NAACP, said that, after the all the controversy, he doesn’t “lose a lot of sleep” over the flag, but still wants it gone.

“It makes more sense to have it inside than on the outside,” he said. “Personally, I think it would better served for the museum to have an exhibit inside and explain it.”

Others are more open about their discontent. While I stood observing the flag earlier this week, Kenyatta Reid, a young African American man who lives around the block from the museum, walked by and took a picture of the banner with his phone.

“Why is that even up there?” Reid said, pointing angrily. “It’s 2015 — they can’t let that go? It’s bigoted as hell.”

Plague commemorating "Bloody Sunday" in Danville, one of the most brutal days of the African American Civil Rights movement.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgess

The flag debate in Danville is contentious, but it’s hardly the city’s worst racially-charged incident. If anything, the controversy is simply the latest chapter in a long history of of racial struggle.

As Burton walked me through the plantation-house-turned-museum, she pointed to exhibits commemorating a Danville slave riot in the 1820s, as well as the Civil Rights history of the museum itself, which used to be the town’s “white” public library until demonstrators staged sit-ins during the 1960s demanding that it be integrated.

“Locals responded by putting chairs on the tables so no one could sit,” Burton said.

Arguably the worst day in the town’s history, however, was “Bloody Monday”, one of the most infamous moments of the African American Civil Rights movement. In 1963, after three years of protests and sit-ins pushing for racial equality in the city, a band of local police officers and deputized garbage collectors brutally attacked a group of African Americans marching to the Danville Municipal Building to protest segregation. Many of the demonstrators fled into a nearby alley, where officials beat them with billy clubs and blasted them with fire hoses before arresting 60 people and leaving nearly 50 injured.

The incident was so horrific that it drew the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited the town to express solidarity with the protesters and convey his shock at the police response.

“I have seen some brutal things on the part of policemen all across the South in our struggle, but very seldom, if ever, have I heard of a police force being as brutal and vicious as the police force here in Danville, Virginia,” King said at the time.

This legacy of fighting for racial equality was recounted during the flag debate last October, when local Rev. Lawrence Campbell delivered an address to the City Council detailing his personal involvement in local Civil Rights movement. He told of when he was thrown down the steps of the Danville Municipal Building for sitting in the “whites-only” section of the city courthouse, adding that his wife was also beaten during a local march for racial justice.

“I fought segregation,” Campbell said. “This flag is polarizing our community … I see it as people glorifying slavery.”

Most of these incidents were over 50 years ago, but the ugly specter of racism haunts the town to this day. Several locals told me the Ku Klux Klan still operates in the city, with Klan activity reported as recently as June 16 of this year, when group identifying itself as “loyal white knights of the KKK” put flyers in yards throughout the town. The pamphlets were covered with hateful messages decrying, perplexingly, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush for having a Mexican-born wife.

“A vote for Jeb Bush is a vote for open borders and for an accelerated browning of America,” the flyers read.

Local supporters of the flag, however, continue to resist the idea that the Confederate flag — versions of which were often waved by segregationists during the Civil Rights movement — is an affront to African Americans. Members of the Danville Heritage Council, which supports flying the Confederate flag on the museum grounds, couldn’t be reached when I was in town, presumably because they were away leading their annual Sam Davis Youth Camp geared towards “preparing 50 great kids for their Confederate future.” But if there was any doubt as to their position on the nation’s ongoing conversation about the flag, a parting message on their Facebook page made their view abundantly clear.

A Confederate flag is tied around the neck of a statue on the museum grounds this week, directly next to where the other Confederate flag flies. The purpose of the protest was unclear.

A Confederate flag is tied around the neck of a statue on the museum grounds this week, directly next to where the other Confederate flag flies. The purpose of the protest was unclear.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

“[Attending camp] fortunately or unfortunately … will remove us from the ongoing screeching-pretending-to-be-a-debate to take down the Confederate Battle flag from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse,” the post read. “The [Charleston] murders and the flag are completely unrelated. Connecting the dots (that don’t connect) is nothing more than rank opportunism by the race baiters who will use any excuse to advance their agenda — and have not the decency to wait until after the funerals to do so.”

This cultural powder keg can make for bizarre or even confusing moments in Danville. As I drove up to the museum to interview Burton for this story, I noticed someone had tied a Confederate battle flag into a crude bowtie and affixed it to the neck of a bronze, impressionistic statue that sits next to the official flag. The battle flag, however, was shredded and tattered, making the exact purpose of the protest unclear.

When I asked Burton about the unusual demonstration, she laughed, saying she wasn’t sure either, but said the statue’s name was probably fitting.

“It’s called ‘Mixed Emotions,’” she said, shaking her head.

Just as I was beginning to think Danville’s flag debate was over before it began, Mayor Sherman Saunders issued a new statement right before I left town. Saunders, who is African American, said the shooting in Charleston and the subsequent national conversation over the Confederate flag called for the lawmakers to revisit the impact of flying the banner on city property.

“The mass shooting that took place on the evening of June 17 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston is a national tragedy,” the statement read. “We are compelled by this event to re-examine the presence of the Third National flag of the Confederate States of America that flies on the grounds of the Sutherlin Mansion and whether the flag should be a part of Danville’s future as currently displayed.”

It’s unclear if the City Council plans to heed the mayor’s advice when it meets again on July 7, although it’s notable that the statement was provided to me by Danville’s public information officer. Meanwhile, Burton told me she is already fending off calls from “concerned citizens” wanting to hold rallies in support of the flag on museum grounds.

“I turned them down,” she said flatly.

Hairston also seemed unsure as to how the city would rule, but noted that moving the flag inside the museum could be a first step in a much-needed conversation about racial reconciliation.

“It would be progress, I think,” Hairston said. “It indicates a change of attitude. Will it solve a race problem? No, but it’s a step in that direction.”

Indeed, Danville, like most Southern cities, is filled with contradictions that can confound outsiders, but seem perfectly normal to local residents. In fact, for all its raging controversies over Civil War relics and its history of racial violence, the city seems to have come a long way since the 1860s, or even the 1960s. About three minutes down the street from the Confederate flag, just above the twisting river that carves out the town’s unique shape, there sits a large, illuminated fountain. When I reclined on a park bench overlooking the water to watch the sunset, I glanced up to see black, white, and Hispanic families gathered to cool off from the blistering summer heat. Parents joked and laughed with each other as their children played, the younger generation holding hands and skipping through the gushing water together, giggling all the while.

All around them, posted in store windows and affixed to city flag poles, banners of a very different kind flew: American flags, hoisted high and proud.