The commissioners of Greene County, Tenn., have almost unanimously rejected one commissioner’s proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag above the courthouse as a sign of the region’s “heritage and loyalties.”
As protesters both for and against the measure thronged outside the courthouse on Monday, 20 commissioners voted “no,” leaving local sheriff’s deputy James "Buddy" Randolph, who wrote the proposal, the only commissioner in favor.
Commissioner Randolph and his supporters echoed arguments that the battle flag is an integral part of Southern history, and ought to be respected as such. “It ain’t got anything to do with race or anything like that,” he told reporters from Tennessee news station WJHL.
Randolph’s proposal read in part:
Our region and its citizens have been powerfully shaped by its history and are determined to pass that history on to future generations.... and where as, the Confederate flag represents state rights, the south, it represents Dixie land, our culture, and our heritage and should be proudly displayed by our County.
Chris Ward, who earned several media outlets’ attention as he marched into town bearing the Confederate battle flag to honor his great-great-grandfather, agreed.
“If he wouldn’t have made it back from the war, I wouldn’t be here today,” he told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
But other Greene County residents seemed mortified.
“This is an embarrassment and an unnecessary issue to deal with,” Greene County Commissioner Robin Quillen told WCYB.
Even County Mayor David Crum felt compelled to release a statement telling citizens that he voted “no.”
As around 100 protesters sparred outside, one told the commission that the flag “doesn't represent our town as a whole."
According to "East Tennessee and the Civil War," published in 1899, most voters in Greene County supported the Union in 1861: 2691 voted against secession, while 744 were in favor.
The Sentinel reports that most demonstrators seemed relieved when results were announced, but Stevie Hughes, president of the Greene County Genealogical Society, also suggested a compromise that could be acceptable to all sides.
Ms. Hughes recommended that the commission display a “Roll of Honor” with the names of all 700 county residents who died in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate.
“This action would honor all and offend none,” she said during a meeting ahead of the vote.
Randolph said he didn't necessarily expect the measure to pass, but that decades of history prompted him to make the proposal.
"They want to do everything and we let them get by with doing away with it," he said, according to the Sentinel. "First thing they done is take prayer out of schools years ago.... They want to take Christmas signs down, and trees, and everything. The Ten Commandments. And we let them get by with it. But it’s time we stand up and do something."
The Confederate battle flag debate flared up after June’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, a racially motivated shooting that left nine black worshippers dead. Following the murders, South Carolinians engaged in a contentious public debate about the battle flag waving near the state capitol. State legislators voted to remove the flag in July.
“I've been wanting to do that ever since the shooting in South Carolina,” Randolph told WCYB’s Maggie Smolka.
Watching the flag be furled for good in Columbia, S.C., The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reflected on how a piece of cloth some treasure as “the distilled spirit of the South” was actually a relatively recent addition to Southern statehouses.
After the Civil War, the flag had little public role except as a museum piece – until 1961, when segregationists flew it to celebrate the war’s 100th anniversary. It stayed up to spite civil rights protestors as discriminatory laws were taken off the books in the 60s and 70s, gradually being diluted – for some – to a symbol of “Southern-fried rebellion: a quaint, youthful symbol that pop culture often treated with hilarity,” he wrote.
That reinvention coexisted with the flag’s legacy, “so horrific to many black people and others,” Mr. Jonsson wrote, “that it gave them chills just to be near it.”
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the flag in question is the Confederate battle flag.]