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.
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.