National Park Service Needs a Stricter Confederate Flag Policy

Update: Sorry to see that the staff at the Stones River National Battlefield chose to remove the post featured below from their Facebook page. That’s disappointing given the many perspectives shared in the comments section.

I fully support the recent decision to remove gift items featuring the Confederate flag in National Park Service stores. In fact, I believe this policy should be extended to include a ban on Confederate flags from park ground except in situations that are strictly controlled by the NPS for the sake of public education. Of course, there are First Amendment concerns, but the events of this summer have clearly demonstrated that the many meanings attached to the Confederate flag extend beyond its role as a soldiers flag in a war that took place 150 years ago. Park visitors ought to feel safe when visiting Civil War sites and that simply cannot be guaranteed given the violence that has taken place around the Confederate flag this summer and throughout its history stretching back to the 1940s.

Short of a general ban the National Park Service needs a policy for dealing with individuals and groups that arrive with Confederate flags, especially in the case of what are now being called flag rallies. Such a scene played out yesterday at Stones River National Battlefield. A group arrived with an assortment of Confederate flags. At some point they were confronted by a NPS Ranger. Later a photograph and comment was posted to their Facebook page.

Facebook Page for Stones River National Battlefield

Facebook Page for Stones River National Battlefield

This is a wonderful example of why a stricter policy is necessary. I am sure that Ranger Jim had the best of intentions, but on what grounds is a distinction being made between the intentions of this particular group and those individuals that placed flags at the King site? More importantly, how can Ranger Jim determine how the presence of the Confederate flag, without any clear context, will be interpreted by visitors to Stones River? The answer is, he can’t and this is the problem that the NPS must address. At least a group like this should be expected to get a permit to demonstrate on park ground.

It is true that “symbols acquire meanings based on their use,” but it seems to me that the NPS’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the Confederate battle flag is understood within a historical context. We are not in need of public service announcements. In Management Policies 2006 the NPS states as one of its goals to “provide opportunities for more NPS audiences to have experiences that connect them to parks, so that they will come to value and enjoy these special places.” (7.5.1) That goal comes into direct conflict with the fact that many Americans are offended by the sight of the Confederate flag or feel unsafe in its presence. To deny this reality after the events of this summer is nothing short of irresponsible.

As I pointed out in a recent post, what we need is for the NPS to educate the general public about the causes and consequences of the Civil War and this includes interpreting Confederate battle flags. We need this now more than ever.

I hope next time Ranger Jim is confronted by such a group that he engages in a “pleasant chat” about why the presence of the Confederate battle flag is problematic when displayed in such a manner and that it conflicts with the park’s stated mission. That may be all that he can do, but it at least puts the NPS on the right side of this issue.

73 thoughts on “National Park Service Needs a Stricter Confederate Flag Policy

  1. Bryce Hartranft

    Denying individuals 1st amendment rights in their own national parks may not be a fight the NPS wants to wade into.

    The park can and should control what it displays, but a park like Stones River has no more right to stop a confederate flag rally than it does a civil rights rally.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I certainly agree. One way might be to address this is through permits. Certain organizations who wish to demonstrate must apply for a permit. Why can’t a caravan of trucks/cars that clearly has a message to share not be treated along similar lines. I am no legal expert and I understand the importance of the First Amendment. Public schools have dealt with this issue. The courts have denied that this is a First Amendment issue and have favored school administrations, who have an interest in maintaining peaceful communities. Perhaps there is some overlap.

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      1. Bryce Hartranft

        I am open to a permit process for rallies in national parks, just as is required to march down a main street thoroughfare. The important thing is that the law is applied to everyone equally.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          No disagreement. Again, that may be the extent to which they can go legally. At the same time I hope my post points to the need for a consistent position when confronting visitors displaying Confederate flag. I see nothing wrong with the NPS discouraging their display outside of situations as outlined in my post.

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          1. Bryce Hartranft

            Devil is in the details.

            What if someone comes into the park with no permit and has a confederate flag bumper sticker? Same situation but now they have a full sized flag attached to the bed of their truck? What if there are 2 trucks with full sized CBFs? 3? 4? Etc.

            When does a permit become necessary?

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              1. Daniel Bailey

                The larger issue is if you need to get a permit to peaceably assemble then you are saying the government has the ability to deny you your rights. If it is a federal park there is no need for permits as the 1st amendment clearly says that Congress can not say anything on the matter. Past precedent be damned. To put it bluntly if you want to display a Nazi flag there is nothing the Congress can say about it constitutionally speaking. Either we have a 1st amendment or not. While we may not agree on the CBF issue I’m sure we can agree that the federal government should have no say on what qualifies as free speech. You brought up schools but as they are run under state governments and or local governments they are free to set up their own regulations via their respective constitutions and or charters.

              2. Kevin Levin Post author

                The larger issue is if you need to get a permit to peaceably assemble then you are saying the government has the ability to deny you your rights.

                Not at all. Groups already need permits to demonstrate on park ground.

      2. Glenn Green

        Once you require a permit for any “Right” you have lost that Freedom. You cannot put any restrictions on any speech or religion if you do then by definition Liberty is restricted and any freedom is lost. Free Speech zones restrict speech to certain areas and by definition eliminate Freedom of Speech. This is of course what the WAR was all about = either the people have a Right to self Governance and the Union of States is voluntary or the centralized Federal Government controls the citizen and the Union is forced against the consent of the governed.

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    2. Todd Heller

      When are people going to get their heads out of the sand and realize that the flag stands for heritage not hate. My GG Grandfather and about 10 other ancestors fought for the Union with the 153rd Pennsylvania. He was wounded on t he first day of the Battle of Gettysburg at Barlow’s Knoll. I’m not offended by the Flag!

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    1. Bryce Hartranft

      National and state parks are public spaces, so they should be open to discourse as any other public space like a town square or courthouse steps.

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  2. Jimmy Dick

    Confederate flag rally = Opportunity for racists to wave a confederate rag to prove their ignorance of history.

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    1. Marian Latimer

      Jimmy, I live in Salisbury, NC. Today I saw quite the little disjointed parade of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks and motorcycles, speeding along one of the main drags here in town. It was fairly late in the afternoon, after 4, I think. I was running an errand and admittedly had heard nothing about this. It did not seem to be planned, given that they seemed to be in groups of twenty of so, with regular, non-flag flying traffic in between, and a good number of them were indeed speeding trying to catch up with the others. Not good around these parts. A good number of these flaggers were also flying the US flag, so I guess they figured that made it all right. Frankly, I am waiting for one of these flags to fly off of a vehicle and cause an accident, since many of them are barely secured. Law enforcement was not anywhere in sight.

      There is a VA cemetery here and this is also the site of a POW camp and cemetery for that as well and they run together, I believe. Given who is buried in the graves of the latter, waving the Confederate flag is damned offensive.

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  3. Annette Jackson

    Living in a town that has been subjected to two very unwelcome flag rallies, I find my support of the 1st Amendment stretched to the point where I have to keep reminding myself that it applies to speech I hate as well as to speech with which I agree. A universal policy statement is a good idea, even if one cannot always anticipate what the public will say or do.

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  4. Pat Young

    Government can make some time, place, and manner restrictions on legitimate exercises of the First Amendment. It would seem that the right to demonstrate with a CBF would not include a right to occupy traffic lanes. The moving vehicular protest using vehicular right of way is likely not a protected manner or place for speech. I think the CBF rally, like most other non-permit rallies, should have been allowed in a single location, a parking lot or the park entrance for example. A roving vehicular demonstration resembles a parade, which typically require permits. These types of rallies are traffic hazards and should only be allowed with appropriate safeguards.

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  5. Jim Lewis

    I am Ranger Jim and I first contacted these folks thinking we did have a permit issue to address. It turned out they were driving through the park as other groups had done before and had stopped to read a wayside and decide where to go to lunch. As this was not a “demonstration” I felt I had no authority to act further especially since the group left after our contact.

    The post was an honest attempt to continue reminding all in this debate that this symbol indeed carries dark meanings for many due to its association with slavery, it’s use as symbol of resistance to the advance of civil rights, and its use in modern racist acts. That being said I think it unfair to acknowledge those truths and then assume all those who see the flag as symbol of often personal ties to Confederate soldiers as simply racists.

    It is true I could not see into the souls of these folks. So how can I then assume their intent to be more than they say it is?

    Admittedly the post was not one of my best efforts at tackling a controversial issue attached to our Civil War. I have learned a lot that will inform how I approach this issue in the future. Despite that, I am glad I made the effort. I’d rather try and fail than ignore this and other thorny issues of our Civil War story and end up telling the stories of battles with no context.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Mr. Lewis,

      Thanks so much for the comment and for filling in some of the details.

      That being said I think it unfair to acknowledge those truths and then assume all those who see the flag as symbol of often personal ties to Confederate soldiers as simply racists.

      This is an important point and I completely agree with you, which is why I believe the NPS needs to think carefully about how it manages the presence of Confederate flags on park ground.

      It is true I could not see into the souls of these folks. So how can I then assume their intent to be more than they say it is?

      Again, this is exactly my point. You can’t, but I would suggest that based on the history of the Confederate flag’s connection to violent acts, there is nothing you can say to certain Americans that could assuage their legitimate. Any NPS policy must proceed from this point.

      Admittedly the post was not one of my best efforts at tackling a controversial issue attached to our Civil War. I have learned a lot that will inform how I approach this issue in the future. Despite that, I am glad I made the effort. I’d rather try and fail than ignore this and other thorny issues of our Civil War story and end up telling the stories of battles with no context.

      And this is exactly what I have come to respect about the vast majority of people who work for the National Park Service.

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    2. David Maddex

      Thank you Ranger Jim for you open mindedness ! It is becoming quite rare these days. Sadly, the flag became an item of controversy, as Mr Levin indicated, in the 1940’s when the Dixiecrats adopted it as their symbol and emboldened the idiot Klan and their loonies to take it up and slander the soldiers that served it. America seems to forget that the Official flag of the Klan is the U S Flag. Those of us that honor our Confederate ancestor’s service have long denounced the use of the flag by these sheet wearing racist cowards but flag supporters seldom get the news coverage that the detractors do.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        The notion that the Confederate flag was embraced by radicals during the civil rights era is is misleading. It was embraced as a symbol of massive resistance by average white Americans. Yes, the Stars and Stripes has been used by hate groups and others, but it is our flag. Every one of us has a responsibility to see that it comes to symbolize the best of what this country has to offer. The Confederate flag is not our national flag. It’s history, from the very beginning, is tied up in white supremacy and the creation of a slaveholding republic.

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  6. John weller

    Simply ridiculous. ….The Confederate flag can be flown anywhere we want..You politically correct idiots can take your ideas and put them in garbage.South will never forget, thanks to General Sherman..Too bad, cry communist.

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  7. Jessica

    Why does it make us a racist to fly the flag that our relatives died under? Why do you fear a symbol that was flown in a battle? I’m really sorry it was used to show racism in the 60s but back in 1861-1865 it was a battle flag. Today it is representing to me Co I turkey cock greys, 21st Virginia infantry, 38 th Virginia infantry Co B, caswell rangers light artillery. …these veterans fought and many died at battle and pow some still mis and many who survived still wore the scars forever of a country at war. They didn’t make the decision to succeed but instead had to make the decision to fight for their own land, families,and towns and everything that their families had made in their life times to be taken away burned and plunder by the northern mercenary. Most were poor farmers not with slaves but with their own children working the fields. Please tell me why you would take that away from us? These parks are to commemorate this loss of life and struggle between states. If you don’t want the flag. ..battle flag not kkk flag ole Dixie in your parks then close them and delete the whole purpose for this flag all together and delete history of a country at it’s youth.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I have followed the Confederate flag rallies fairly closely and I have heard next to nothing about the history of Confederate soldiers. I have heard a good deal about modern political problems and a lot of heated language, but very little history.

      If you are so concerned about the Confederate battle flag being interpreted strictly in connection with the soldiers who fought under it and for a government committed to the establishment of a slaveholding republic than you should welcome the spirit of my post. I don’t want it banned. I would love to see the NPS have more control over how the flag is used on park property.

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      1. Jessica

        I do care how it’s used but still they label me as a racist but for the love of my family and my country i fly birth US and ole Dixie but you can’t try and silence the freedom of speech. I would attempt to silence all who fly it wrong but
        A flag rally isn’t wrong
        a racially charged rally is wrong
        Most flag rallies consist of people who have a love for our flag for one meaning or the other but all in a flag rally will say its not for hate but it’s hard to convince all those who their minds are set and even when fact is evident they still do not listen please tell me what i can do. I’m a member I’m progress to United daughters of the confederacy, I’ll do all i can to help this flag please tell me

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          What you are coming up against is the fact that the flag has a complex history with much of that history connected to the history of race and slavery. You can’t erase that history by claiming “Heritage, Not Hate.” Many Americans have a living memory of seeing that flag in opposition to civil rights. At the beginning of the twentieth century the United Daughters of the Confederacy urged Americans not to display the flag outside of strictly defined conditions. They also cautioned against using it as a political statement. That changed forever when the Dixiecrat Party adopted it in the 1940s. That history cannot be ignored.

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    2. Annette Jackson

      As the descendant of many Union soldiers, I resent my ancestors being called mercenaries, Jessica. They fought to preserve the United States. When my 60 year old 3rd GGF picked up his rifle to fight at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, he was far from a mercenary…he was a patriotic American.

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      1. Jessica

        I’m sorry but back then that was what it was called an invasion but ALL veterans are hero’s and i honor your family as well May God intermingled them in heaven

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Andy’s blog is a great place to start, but I would recommend scholarly studies of why soldiers fought including James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and Colin Woodward’s Marching Masters: Slavery, Race and the Confederate Army During the Civil War.

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      2. Jessica

        Most families were too poor to slaves and they were the ones who fault on the Confederate side not your big plantation owners your little small town young man the big bureaucrats with all the slave plantations did not surrender their sons

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Actually, this is not true. You may want to read Joseph Glatthaar’s wonderful book, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. He shows that wealthy slaveowners were actually over represented in Lee’s army. While a relatively small number owned slaves a fairly large percentage lived in extended families that did own slaves. And as I demonstrate in the first chapter of my book on the battle of the Crater (1864) every Confederate (slaveowner and nonslaveowner alike) had a stake in protecting slavery and white supremacy once emancipation and black Union soldiers were introduced.

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  8. Jessica

    Another thing i might add is the reasons for this flag rally out cry is not for racial unjust but the fear that if ones don’t take a stand now and show out cry that they will take it from us. You should be honored that they are taking a stand to preserve the parks and represent the cause of the parks. I am to also afraid that they may take our rights away to hold true to our flag on display. I’m from Danville, Virginia and there also they are trying to remove the flag from the sutherland mansion the last capital of the confederacy. My town also had a peaceful flag rally to try and educate the true meaning of this flag. Everyone is saying they want to deface stone mountain. ..Why it’s a depiction of three great persons who served also in confederacy. There’s no racially charged motivation intended in this depiction only Robert e Lee and stone wall who fought to preserve the beautiful state of Virginia and Jeff Davis riding horse back….i want to see it someday for my own eyes but not if they take it away first hope this helps you understand somewhat if what is going on in the minds of the flaggers, thank you for all you do in keeping our heritage in preserve for all future generations to take in their rich history good or bad

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    1. Andy Hall

      “I’m from Danville, Virginia and there also they are trying to remove the flag from the sutherland mansion the last capital of the confederacy.”

      Classic, all aggrieved resentment and minimal actual knowledge. You don’t even know the correct name of the site in Danville.

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    2. Msb

      That would be the Robert E Lee who kidnapped black people for sale as slaves, during his invasion of Pennsylvania?

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  9. Jessica

    Every symbol had it’s own meaning in ones eyes, but only the winners can depict the losers story and they choose the story to slavery and not of men if valor and honor fighting for a just cause of family

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Exactly who are the winners and losers in this unfolding drama? Southerners of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are sorting these complex and emotional issues out in their communities.

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      1. Annette Jackson

        And when flaggers parade twice though a town that is over 65% black and act shocked that they aren’t greeted as heroes, I have to seriously question their “heritage not hate” trope…..they didn’t just offend the black residents, they offended we white residents as well… As I said, they are stretching the limits of my patience with these rallies.

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        1. Jessica

          My patience had been stretched thin when i see all these cemeteries being desacrated all around my home and throughout the US of civil war vets enough is enough! ! Some of my family is buried there should i have to stand guard to protect my dead maybe where you live of 65 percent black is also where they call home also. Why is one to remain silent during this genocide of a flag. Let it be. Leave our memorials alone leave our dead alone. Stop stealing them off our homes and cars. We have the right as any to defend this. I’m surprised to see no one is vandalizing Martin Luther king monuments but i guess if they do maybe you will understand out cry

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      1. Daniel Sauerwein

        Kristoffer,

        As the author of the post you linked, I want to make it clear that this particular post was merely a brief synopsis and promo of (at the time) an upcoming PBS documentary. Regarding the NPS and the flag, I believe they need to tread carefully, as it is such a contentious issue with very strong opinions on both sides that I am unsure if a compromise is possible, which is reflective of the larger polarization of our society in recent years. The battle flag has a place, as a piece of our history and an educational tool, but can be destructive in the wrong hands, whether on the heritage side, or other sides. Without proper knowledge and context, its use as an educational item drops considerably. Then again, I’m likely viewed as another Yankee who doesn’t get it, though I admire many things about the South, including its architecture, geography, and hospitality.

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  10. Mater S Head

    Perhaps we should place couches, manned by a practicing psychiatrist of course, every three or four hundred yards on our national Civil War battlefields to ensure that the delicate sensitivities of the perpetually offended are cared for. In the same spirit, perhaps we should limit the display of the American flag on these battlefields as surely the feelings of Native Americans, a group who felt the wrath of that flag as a symbol of genocide and military conquest, are just as important as African-Americans.

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      1. Jessica

        I’m ashamed to see the black Panthers burning our American flag at their rallies and standing on it and also flying it up side down this affends me because i also have family who served in ww1 and 2 Vietnam and current

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        1. woodrowfan

          but you honor your ancestors who fought, and may have killed, soldiers in the US Army. Those were not just “Yankees”. They were officers and men of the United States Army.

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              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                There is no southern army. There is no Confederate States of America. There are no Confederate soldiers. We live in the United States of America.

              2. Annette Jackson

                Thank you, Kevin. On CW sites on Facebook I see people calling themselves Confederates and I have to check the date on my tablet to make sure it is 2015. Yep, it still is…

  11. Jessica

    I wasn’t born back then so i can’t change what those people did but do you find it favorable to crucify an entire ancestry for their mistakes do you nail us all down at the cross we move forward and change the public persona of this flag the media needs not to report on the negative all the time. Today we take a stand and fly this flag in remembrance of family and loss today we change the public reaction and educate them what the red on that flag means. ..soldiers blood. …Americans. ….veterans

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I don’t understand. Your entire argument hinges on the privileging a certain narrative over others. Turns out that not everyone agrees with it.

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      1. Annette Jackson

        Absolutely, but it is one that resonates with the proponents of the Lost Cause. In this ” Gone with the Wind” fueled narrative the southern soldiers were always honorable and northern soldiers were evil beasts who had no cause to uphold. Most of my families have been in this country since the 1600’s and have a strong military heritage that goes back to Colonial times…from there to the Revolution, to the war of 1812, to the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American, the two World Wars, the Korean, and Vietnam. I think we have supplied enough soldiers and filled enough graves to prove our “honor…” What seems to be missing is the concept that flying a battleflag, or one of the incarnations of the official Confederate flag, gives it, or them, some sort of official sanction by the government. They have no official place on a permanent basis….preserved in a museum, brought out in a reenactment, at a SCV or UDC event, flown on a private flagpole, if you feel so compelled on a tee shirt or some other article of clothing….fine, you will get no push back from me on private displays…but to deliberately drive through an historic black community is a middle finger in the face…

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        1. Jessica

          Tell them to stop taking it off of our homes and cars and also stop putting their pervurial finger in our faces and calling us racist because we fly it i respect your concerns now please respect ours and this will die down stop the black Panthers al sharpen Jesse Jackson i don’t support the kkk they would probably hang me from a tree also we need to unite my church doesn’t have racial boundaries nor does my heavenly father

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            1. Jessica

              Why yes glad you were paying attention lol I’m not a hater just somewhat of a hell raiser but i . Ain’t no racist love ole Dixie nothing you can say to change that. ..God bless all y’all I’m done I’ll give the floor to someone else y’all come back now and sit a spell y’all hear

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  12. Ryan A

    Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was also a soldier, an American, and a veteran who bled for the country in Vietnam. Do we need to honor him today for all that he did?

    And I certainly don’t think Kevin or anyone of like mind wants to nail Southerners “down at the cross” to punish them for what their ancestors did. As you say, you “weren’t born back then so you can’t change what those people did.” The problem comes in denying or trying to remain ignorant of what those ancestors actually did do and what they actually fought for. We can argue or discuss what that Confederate private actually personally felt but there’s no denying that the army he was a part of was an extension of the Confederate government which fought for the preservation of their “right to self government” which meant their right to maintain slavery. Like it or not, the flag was the emblem of an army fighting to keep people in chains. The Confederacy did not survive, its’ flags were furled, and the world it was fighting to protect was brought down around it both by the armies of the United States and the very people it fought to keep as property. There was no way to reconcile or alter the history of that flag or make it to mean anything else other than what it really was. It’s use by white supremacists of the later generation was not a random one.

    We all have ancestors who did stupid or bad things at some point in their lives. Acknowledging their existence and their role in history is important. Excusing their behavior or trying to manipulate their decisions into some sort of righteous cause is disingenuous and misleading. If future descendants of Lt. Calley maintained that he actually did the right thing on March 16, 1968 and his reputation has been smeared by historians with a bias, would we be expected to accept it at face value and not push back?

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  13. William McDougald

    Mr. Levin:
    Do you really think you are objective when discussing the Confederate flag? Why can’t the majority decide for once, instead of CNN and biased pundits. I have nothing personal against you, you seem to have an almost animosity toward southerners. Are there incidents in your life that caused this or is it a product of your environment/locale? You seem to be extremely PC, which seems like it would be a detriment to a historian. No offense, but why don’t be a man and explain SPECIFICALLY what your beef is. It can’t be just a flag.

    Reply

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