Flag flap splits city commission

Staff Reporter

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lake Commissioners voted during Tuesday’s meeting to forbid placing Confederate flags on the graves of former Civil War soldiers at Lake Wales Cemetery.

The 3-2 vote reversed the short-lived policy to allow the Stars and Bars to fly over the graves of Confederate veterans at the city’s two cemeteries, for just one day per year, Confederate Memorial Day, April 26.

Since a December commission vote – when an ordinance outlining what mementos and artifacts would be acceptable on graves was enacted – a city study showed that no Civil War vets are buried in the city cemeteries.

Several commissioners and members of the public noted that the political discussion and vote were moot unless the unlikely scenario arises that someone wishes to move a former soldier’s body to Lake Wales. Commissioners heard that state and federal policies allow for use of Confederate Flags and would trump any local ordinance.

Speakers from the podium and audience were nearly divided during a public hearing on the first reading of the ordinance change. Commissioners will get a chance to reexamine the situation prior to a final vote.

Commissioners Alex Wheeler, Jonathan Thornhill and Terrye Howell voted to prohibit flying Confederate flags over graves, while John Paul Rogers and Mayor Jack Van Sickle prefer keeping things the way they are and leaving the ordinance on the books.

"We want unity: We don’t want disunity. We’re basically spitting in your face. Disunity is showing disrespect,” Wheeler said. “The United Sates Flag should be the only flag flying over any veteran’s grave."

Thornhill said he believed "There’s been a lot of historical inaccuracies. This is a legal issue. It all comes down to state law."

"Let’s hope we never have a war like that again,” Van Sickle added. “Let’s hope history has taught us we need to get along."

Rogers said there really wasn’t much of a need to even have the discussion.

"I don’t see any reason to even bring this up. It’s moot,” Rogers said. “Federal and state law allow for flying the flag."

"Do right by all people. Don’t dishonor anyone who is dead. Put an American Flag up there,” Howell said.

Several community members also offered opinions, including NAACP Lake Wales president David Smith.

"Anything at the cemetery that’s insulting to the community should not be at the cemetery. We need to come together,” Smith said.

The Rev. J.J. Pierce, of First Institutional Baptist Church, added: "I hope you get tired of us speaking on racial issues and we get tired of coming. Use the time and energy to work on the more important and progressive issues. This is one step forward and two steps backward. It’s out of the Dark Ages."

Ed Bowlin, who also this week was named a member of the city’s newly formed charter review committee, observed: "It’s about honoring veterans. A veteran has no choice of what war he fights in. This is not an issue of taking sides, this is about honoring a veteran. Honoring Confederate veterans is not going to correct the evils of slavery. We can’t correct the past sins."

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