By M.E. PELLIN – EDITOR
In the wake of City Manager Pam Syfert’s order to remove the Confederate flag from Elmwood Cemetery; city councilmembers proved, once again, that they have the collective backbone of a jellyfish.
Nearly a year ago a few councilmembers started what evolved into a contentious battle over whether the Confederate flag, which has flown for about a decade without incident over the graves of Confederate soldiers buried in Elmwood, should be removed.
When it became apparent the issue had become a political and social hot-potato that was almost certain to burn any councilmember that touched it, regardless of whether they thought the flag should remain, be removed or be lowered, the council washed its hands of the whole mess it had created and conveniently shuffled it off to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee (CRC) and Syfert for resolution.
That resolution was handed down Tuesday morning, when Syfert ordered the flag removed – and not just the flag. The pole was also removed, lest anyone be tempted to shimmy up it and hang another Confederate flag. That’s what happened two months ago, after somebody removed the flag from the cemetery and the city had its riggings cut from the pole. In turn, Doug Hanks, a candidate in this year’s at-large city council race, climbed the pole to replace the flag. The city, apparently, learned its lesson and was taking no chances this time around.
On Tuesday morning Mark Palmer, local preservationist and founder of the grassroots Historic Preservation of Elmwood and Pinewood Cemetery, said he watched in dismay as trucks and backhoes removed the flag and pole, and left tire marks over graves.
“They didn’t waste any time, that’s for sure,” Palmer said. “The whole thing is a disgrace and a big sham. This was going to be the result from the beginning, and everybody knew it. All the rest was just an insult.”
In particular, Palmer and other flag supporters claim the city ignored feedback generated from a forum the CRC held last October to gauge public sentiment about the flag, and the results of a website poll the committee set up to gather additional input. In both cases, public opinion overwhelmingly ran in favor of leaving the flag alone. The CRC even presented Syfert with a list of recommendations that included options for allowing the flag to fly on certain holidays like Memorial Day or Flag Day, placing the flag in a case to be displayed by the Confederate gravesites and memorial, or replacing it with the N.C. State flag of 1861.
Instead, Syfert ordered the flag removed.
“The City of Charlotte will fly only official flags of this country, state and city on city-owned properties,” Syfert said in a press release. “This practice, already in place for all other city-owned properties, also will apply to the city’s Elmwood Cemetery.”
Syfert was given the authority to make that decision without taking it back to the city council for a final vote. That brought a wave of dissent from flag supporters who said it was little more than another opportunity for the council to avoid public accountability.
“That’s about what people have come to expect from our city’s government, and it’s a disgrace,” said council at-large candidate Hanks. “It’s a complete cop-out to peddle something like this off to some rigged committee and the city manager without final approval from the public officials who were elected to represent the people. Well, the people spoke loud and clear, and guess what? They were ignored again.”
Indeed, Palmer’s group collected more than 1,500 signatures from people who wanted the flag to remain, including N.C. Representative John Rhodes, County Commissioner Jim Puckett, and country singer Charlie Daniels. Palmer said County Commissioner Parks Helms even agreed to have his name added to the petition. Helms did not return a phone call. Not that it really would have mattered whether his name was included among the signatures; Syfert’s mind was set.
“I appreciate the very strong beliefs and feelings on all sides of this debate,” Syfert said, pointing out that there are still several monuments in Elmwood engraved with the Confederate flag, and that people could still decorate individual gravesites with miniature Confederate flags. “We listened to what everybody had to say and took all of those opinions into consideration. But in the end, I didn’t agree with where their conclusion was.”
The whole flag flap started last summer when City Councilmember Warren Turner requested a review of the city’s policy for flying flags at Elmwood Cemetery. Turner said he had several constituents raise concerns about the message the flag – seen by some as a symbol of hate and slavery – was sending. In turn, Turner said that because the city owns the cemetery, some people might have thought the city endorsed that same message.
Hanks didn’t buy that logic.
“It’s about right versus wrong, and the fact that taking down any flag of heritage is wrong,” he said. “Had they removed a flag representing black soldiers instead of Confederate soldiers, I would have replaced it as well. A soldier has the right to be buried under the flag for which he served.”
Turner, who could not be reached for comment, has previously said he would have been satisfied with having the flag lowered instead of removed, something he said flag proponents were unwilling to consider.
Palmer said his group tried to set up several meetings with Turner and other councilmembers to discuss alternatives to removing the flag, but were left hanging.
While Syfert said she hoped her decision would close the book on the flag controversy, Palmer and other flag supporters said it was reason for renewed debate and action.
“We’re going to make a fuss about this,” said Palmer, who added his group was already planning more protests and was considering possible legal action against the city. “It’s too important to let it drop.”
Flag supporters would probably face an uphill battle with any legal challenge. During the CRC’s community forum last year, City Attorney Mac McCarley said his department had researched recent court opinions and how other cities dealt with similar flag-related issues. His conclusion was that governments could make reasonable rules governing property that it owns. In other words, if the city wanted to remove the Confederate flag at Elmwood Cemetery, it would be within its legal rights to do so.
Southern Legal Resource Center Executive Director Roger McCredie disagreed. “Our legal contacts in Charlotte have discovered at least two cases where municipalities that had undertaken similar actions were found to be in violation of the law,” he said. “These are cases involving interference witth gravesites, whether on so-called city property or not. There could be some serious legal implications here for the City of Charlotte.”
City Councilmember John Tabor said he was sympathetic to the concerns and passions of the flag supporters, but also said it was time for the city to move on.
“I would have been comfortable with the decision either way, to take it down or let it fly,” Tabor. “I understand the whole heritage side of it, but I believe, really, that we have some very nice monuments in that cemetery that address honoring those soldiers.”
Tabor said he thought it was ironic that the whole controversy highlighted a flag that a huge majority of residents, and even most city officials, probably never knew existed. He said once people learned about it, from the input he received most people thought it should have remained in place.
“I have heard one person say it should come down and I don’t think Pam Syfert has even heard one person say it should come down, other than two city councilmembers and a few committee members,” Tabor said. “I think, quite frankly, the whole thing was maneuvered so city council wouldn’t have to deal with it.”