Confederate flag sparks debate in Western Tidewater

Published 8:59 am Monday, July 6, 2015

 The Tidewater News reached out to different groups to tell each side of the story.

The Tidewater News reached out to different groups to tell each side of the story.

By Cain Madden and Andrew Lind
Managing Editor and Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, Dylann Roof walked into a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and allegedly killed nine black people, three of them pastors. With Confederate symbols as part of his manifesto, he was reportedly attempting to start a race war.

Since then, people have called for the removal of the flag on government property and in government-sponsored products. Some have called for the outright banning of the flag; others see it as a right of free speech issue and that nothing should be done with the flag.

For Linda Updike, president of the Southampton County Historical Society, she said she’s on the fence about the flag, but she believes the monuments should be left as they are. They are a part of history.

“I see both sides, both perspectives,” Updike said. “I see why it’s offensive to some and why others are loyal to it. I have mixed feelings.”

The Tidewater News reached out to different groups to tell each side of the story.

Which side do you fall on?

Only one flag unites the American states

A self-proclaimed old man with hair that’s more white than not, Franklin’s William A. Scott has been around the world on behalf of the Department of Defense. He’s been shot and has bled for this country. He’s a patriot.

“As someone who did not just breeze through the world, but spent months at a time in other countries, I say that the United States of America is the best country in the world,” he said. “It’s the only place I would want to live.

“But does that excuse what is wrong in this country? No. When I look at the racial divide, which has been around since the inception of this country, it has caused all kinds of problems.”

Dr. Scott is involved in the ministry at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Boykins. But long before, he has been a theologian, teaching at universities and running his own Bible college.

“The Bible does not say that there are two collections of people, white and black,” he said. “The Bible tells us to love, honor, respect and become more charitable.”

Those words were not honored leading up to the American Civil War. Black men, women and children were in slavery because of the color of their skin, Scott said, and they were looked upon as cattle.

“People say the war was not about slavery. They say it was about capitalistic enterprise,” he said. “That’s all true, but the underlying issue was that capitalistic society relied on slavery. You need a labor force in enterprise, and you didn’t have to pay that force. Sure, you had to feed them and provide shelter. I’m sure most were even treated ‘fairly’ well. Because if you have a sickly labor force, they can’t work.”

After the war was over and the Union had prevailed, troops remained behind during Reconstruction. However, when the armies withdrew to let the Southern states govern themselves — when they were welcomed back into the fold without any penalty other than renouncing slavery — Scott said the South went right back to being divided. Laws went into place denying the liberties of black Southerners that lasted through the Civil Rights era.

“Those representing the stars and stripes flag were the victors, so the Confederates should have been the losers,” Scott said. “They were welcomed back as brothers by President Abraham Lincoln before he was shot. They were not called traitors for taking up arms against their own countrymen and causing a lot of death and bloodshed over something as inhumane as slavery.

“But for some reason, the Confederate battle flag became a symbol of the unspoken words that the South won the war. They went right back to what they were doing, never admitting that they lost the war.”

Courtland United Methodist Church Pastor Andrew Book looks back with pride on the early Methodist Episcopal Church, which had split from England.

“Even at that time, when it was not clear that this country was going to give all people rights based on race, the early church had African-American leaders in it,” Book said. “At that point, it was a very interracial church.”

Then society happened. Black Americans were not given the same rights that white Americans had, and the institutionalized church started to split up racially. By the time the Civil War broke out, the church split up as the Union did, North and South, on the issue of slavery.

“That history is still impacting the church today,” Book said. “The church I serve is almost completely white, and that disturbs me.

“When I look at history, I recognize that many good things have gone on in the history of the church, but there were problems. When I think about the Methodist Episcopal Church South, it reminds me of our history as a segregated church. I bear some responsibility for this history as a pastor. The church should be leading the way toward reconciliation amongst races.”

The church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people lost their lives in an attempt by a young man to spark a race war was an African Methodist Episcopal Church.

This congregation was once part of Book’s branch, but the split happened because the Methodist Episcopal institution had a poor sense of integration in having black people involved on every level.

“The Apostle Paul said that in Jesus Christ, we are no longer Jew or Gentile, which was a racial division common at that time,” Book said. “As followers of Christ, Paul said racial divisions shouldn’t exist. Yet, it is very common.”

When Book was at the University of Georgia, a football player by the name of Ben Watson, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, was there. When the pastor thinks about the Confederate flag, he considers Watson’s reflection pertinent.

“He talked about moving to South Carolina when he was in high school,” Book said. “One of his best friends was another player on the team who is white — Ben is black. He went over to his friend’s house, and there was a Confederate flag hanging up in the bedroom.”

Writing on Facebook, Watson said, “I remember the lump in my throat as I briefly attempted to convey in the most non-condemning way, what the flag represented to me and many others like me.”

The teammate who had welcomed Watson to the area ahead of others said that the rebel flag was not meant to be a symbol of racism, that it showed southern heritage. Those words said, when Watson went back to the friend’s home, the flag had been taken down.

“He didn’t have to, but because he cared about our friendship, because he cared about me, he empathetically removed the offensive banner on my behalf, and maybe for the first time heard how painful that symbol could be,” the athlete said on Facebook. “That day was a turning point in our relationship and today; Frank continues to be one of my best friends.”

Book said he understands the flag means a lot of things to many different people, some of them positive. But for the vast majority of black people, the flag is steeped in the negative portions of history, racism, slavery and civil rights violations.

“I would never fly the Confederate flag because I want people to feel welcome, and I know that the flag hurts many people,” Book said. “Regardless of what it means to the people who fly it, it doesn’t mean that to everyone who sees it. When you put the flag on your property, on your car, ask yourself, ‘What am I communicating to people who see this, and is that a message I want to communicate?’

“My desire is that we convey a message of love, and caring, and making people feel welcome.”

For Dylann Roof, and many others, the flag was a symbol of hatred, said Scott. Why else would he use it to try to start a race war? But it was a very important message that all nine Christian families of the victims in South Carolina forgave the alleged killer.

“Christians nationwide, black and white, recognized that what he did was wrong,” he said. “The prayer service where Christians of all races packed into a church in Franklin was a symbol of what was happening across the nation. We came closer together instead of further apart, as that young man wished.”

Scott said we shouldn’t ban the flag as a nation — that’s not what the United States stand for. Book agreed.

“We should not ignore it, but we should learn from the oppression of African-Americans so that we don’t repeat it,” he said. “We should not celebrate that history.”

It should not be flown by the government.

“When talking about our government, we are talking about something that is supposed to represent all Virginians,” Book said.

“And so, the question is, can the government in good conscience fly that flag and say they represent all Virginians? From my perspective, I don’t think that they can do that.”

There should only be one flag representing the United States of America — the Stars and Stripes — and it is the flag that represents all races, who are just as God made them, Scott said.

“This is the best country in the world,” he said. “I’ve had friends die for it, and I, too, would die for this country.

“We are united. United means all of us, it implies inclusion not exclusion. We are the United States of America.”

Rebel flag not reason for tension

A recent poll on this newspaper’s website shows that the majority of readers see the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — often mislabeled as the Confederate flag — as a symbol of Southern Pride, not one of racism.

“The flag is not supposed to represent hate; it’s supposed to represent our heritage, those who fought in the war and carried the flag into battle,” said Keith Searcy, adjutant for the Gen. William Mahone (Southampton, Surry and Sussex) chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “That’s why we honor it.”

In recent weeks, the flag has been the subject of a nationwide debate. As a result of a mass shooting by a white man who was trying to start a race war at a historical black church, many citizens are calling for the flag to removed from government property and monuments that depict or honor rebel soldiers be torn down. Some are even calling for the flag to be banned entirely.

“It’s something that people have been wanting to do for a long time, and [the shooting] gives them an excuse,” Robert Joyner, commander of the Gen. William Mahone chapter, said. “It didn’t matter what flag he was carrying. He was deranged.”

An uncovered manifesto shows more than 60 photos of alleged shooter Dylann Roof at various Confederate heritage sites and slavery museums or with the flag in hand. But he also talks about how the case of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, sparked his racist rage.

To connect Roof’s anger and hatred of blacks to the flag that so many hold in high regard is the nation taking a step backward, according to John Pyle, former commander of the Urquhart-Gillette (Franklin, Isle of Wight, Southampton and Suffolk) chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said that nobody had a problem with what the flag stood for until Roof shot nine black churchgoers and the aforementioned pictures were found, just like nobody cared until various hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis, used it in the 1940s and ‘50s as their pennant.

“The problem is that [they] used the battle flag as their banner, and it gave it a bad taste. We do not agree with the KKK and the Neo-Nazis. That is not who we are,” he said. “It’s to keep the memory alive of those who fought in the war.”

Preserving the legacy of their ancestors lost long ago is a sentiment shared by every one of the 30,000 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans nationwide. But to understand their plea to keep the flag untouched is to acknowledge the history behind it.

“The flag has been a symbol since 1896, when Gen. Stephen Lee started the United Confederate Veterans, when he realized our numbers were dwindling down, so that they could pass their legacy onto the people like me,” Joyner said, noting that he had 35 relatives from four states fight in the war.

Following the Civil War, the flag was not perceived as a negative symbol; it was used for historical ceremonies such as veterans’ events, memorials and funerals.

It was not perceived as racist propaganda until segregationist groups and politicians flaunted the Southern Cross in the mid-20th century.

“It didn’t happen until the last soldier died, but the government doesn’t consider them Rebels; the government calls them veterans of the Army of the United States,” Joyner said, noting that their past transgressions did not make their efforts any less commendable.

And to blame the flag and remove monuments that represent their forefathers in light of the recent, racism-fueled massacre, these Confederate sympathizers are beside themselves.

“How can one man cause this,” Searcy asked. “There’s lots of history with the flags and the monuments. The Daughters of the Confederacy put up these monuments for a reason, and it makes us mad because they want to try to snatch it down because of some killings. I can’t understand how they think it’ll do away with the killing. Things haven’t been bad since the war 150 years ago. But then all of a sudden these killings start happening and they’re blaming it on the flag.”

Joyner chimed in, saying, “They’re all idiots. Have you ever seen a flag shoot someone? The fact that the kid was holding the flag has nothing to do with its history. He walked into a black church, sat through their service, and nobody thought to pay attention to him?

“If a black dude walks into my church with his pants pulled down, I’d have two of my biggest dudes keep an eye on him so that nothing like that happened.”

The root of the dispute dominating today’s news coverage is about more than just the flag, Pyle said, but the underlying point remains.

“You can’t change history. It will always be there,” he said.

“We have these problems, and I’m not sure they’ll ever be resolved. You can pass laws, but you can’t change peoples’ minds. I’m sorry that it happened, but we won’t get away from the violence, hate and destroying each other.”