By M.E. PELLIN – EDITOR
It took two paid facilitators and nearly a dozen volunteer ones, along with one uniformed and armed police officer, to keep emotions and comments in check during a two-hour, so-called community dialogue about whether a Confederate flag should continue flying in Elmwood Cemetery.
The Tuesday night meeting, which was hosted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee (CRC) and attended by about 130 participants, unfolded without incident but carried a steady strain of tension. A large majority of participants felt that the Confederate flag, which currently flies over a Confederate memorial and graves in Elmwood Cemetery, should be left alone. Several people said they were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Others wore clothes, caps and pins adorned with the Confederate flag and other Confederate emblems.
The flag controversy began earlier this summer when City Councilmember Warren Turner requested a review of the city’s policy about flying the Confederate flag at the city-owned 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. Turner was concerned that because the city owns the cemetery some might perceive that message as being endorsed by the city. Turner has said he would like to see the flag flown on a shorter pole that it not as visible from outside the cemetery, but not removed from the cemetery.
Others say the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage, not hate, and is a fitting tribute to the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War and are buried at Elmwood Cemetery. The flag has been flying at Elmwood for about a decade without incident.
The city council last month tasked the CRC to review the Confederate flag controversy, obtain public feedback, and make a recommendation to the city manager on how to best deal with what has become a hot-button political and social issue.
How hot became apparent before Tuesday night’s meeting even began. A placard outside the Government Center indicating where the meeting was being held read: “Not Allowed: Weapons, Facsimiles of Weapons, Poles or Sticks.”
Before the meeting got underway, the two paid facilitators – who each received $250 for their services – reviewed an extensive set of ground rules for the public debate portion of the meeting. The ground rules, the facilitators said, were meant to encourage non-confrontational dialogue. They helped, at least to a certain extent.
A presentation by UNC Charlotte history professor David Goldfield was interrupted several times when audience members shouted him down for what they said was a misrepresentation of Confederate and Southern history.
At one point, Goldfield said the Civil War was predicated on human bondage and Confederate soldiers, while fighting to preserve their families and communities, were also fighting to preserve slavery.
“There’s no doubt among historians today that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War,” Goldfield said.
His comments were greeted with loud boos and several exclamations that the Civil War was fought to preserve states’ rights and end taxation without representation.
“It’s just a shame this committee didn’t give equal time to a historian who doesn’t obviously equate the Confederate flag with hate,” said one lady audience member.
CRC Chairman Willie Ratchford said in an interview that the committee selected Goldfield as a speaker because of his local ties to UNC Charlotte. Others in attendance Tuesday night hooted Goldfield for his New York roots that they contended rendered him out of touch with Southern culture.
Local historian and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission Consulting Director Dan Morrill provided some cursory background information on Elmwood, which is a designated historic cemetery with plans in the process for its inclusion on the historical landmarks list.
“Elmwood has reflected the history of the community since 1853,” Morrill said. In 1969, for example, the cemetery officially integrated with adjoining Pinewood Cemetery, which previously had been separated from Elmwood with a fence. Whites were buried in Elmwood, blacks in Pinewood.
In addition to using the public feedback from Tuesday night’s meeting, Ratchford said in making its final recommendation to the city manager the CRC would also consider comments e-mailed to the committee (comments can be delivered by visiting CharMeck.org and following the appropriate links) and information compiled by the city attorney’s office detailing how other cities have handled similar controversies.
In one case from Missouri, a Confederate flag that was flown over a cemetery in a state historic site was removed and a Confederate battle flag was displayed, instead, at a visitor’s center. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, a Confederate flag was removed from a section of a city cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried. In Baltimore, Maryland, a man was refused permission to fly a Confederate flag daily at a national Confederate cemetery, but was allowed to fly it two days a year – Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.
During Tuesday night’s meeting City Attorney Mac McCarley said there are currently no city regulations or ordinances that deal with flying a Confederate flag at a city-owned cemetery. However, based on recent court decisions, city cemeteries are considered non-public forums concerning issues of free speech, McCarley said.
“Government may make any reasonable rules governing property that it owns,” he said.
In other words, if the city council wants to remove or lower the Confederate flag at Elmwood Cemetery, it would likely be within its legal rights to do so. Some audience members took that as an ominous portent.
“Is the City of Charlotte trying to wipe out our history?” one audience member shouted. His question was answered by loud shouts in the affirmative from the audience.
The CRC plans to make its recommendation on what to do with the Elmwood flag no later than early January, Ratchford said.
Ratchford said he wasn’t surprised that the large majority of participants in Tuesday’s dialogue were in support of leaving the flag alone.
“The committee has learned that people who support the flag are very passionate in their beliefs,” Ratchford said. On the flip side, he said the CRC has not received much feedback from people wanting to remove the flag or change how it is being displayed.
“I think that all says this community understands diversity more than we realize and understands there’s room for different points of view,” Ratchford said.
But several participants in Tuesday’s community dialogue said they feared that while they were being given an opportunity to be heard, they wondered if anybody was really listening.
Mark Palmer, founder of the grassroots group Historic Preservation of Elmwood and Pinewood Cemetery, said citizens who want the Confederate flag left alone weren’t given enough time Tuesday night to fully explain their reasons. Palmer also said he doubted if CRC members would give appropriate attention to any comments the public e-mailed for review, and that it might not matter even if they do.
“Based on some of the speakers they chose to talk tonight, and what I heard from those speakers, I think their minds might already be made up,” Palmer said. He is concerned the city will either remove the Confederate flag or lower it; both options, he said, would be a slap in the face of a long and proud history shared by many Charlotte residents.
At one point Tuesday night, audience members broke into small groups for individual discussion where they were asked to answer three questions: What does the Confederate flag mean to you; what are your thoughts about flying the flag in a city-owned cemetery; and what do you think should be done with the flag at Elmwood?
After the individual groups returned their answers they were reviewed as a whole. The overwhelming opinion: the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern heritage and should remain in Elmwood Cemetery. Other suggestions ranged from lowering the flag to a less prominent height and adding education material at the cemetery that explains the flag’s history, to replacing it with the First National Flag – better known as the Stars and Bars – which is less controversial for the simple fact that it is less recognizable than the Confederate flag. A handful of responses indicated that the flag should be removed.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Terry Crayton said that when the city council makes its ultimate decision on the fate of Elmwood’s flag, it probably wouldn’t matter what kind of public feedback was provided.
“It’s going to amount to zero,” Crayton said. “The city is going to do what the city wants do. They’re building an arena we didn’t want and building a light rail line we didn’t want.”
Crayton said the push to change how the Confederate flag is flown at Elmwood was little more than cheap politicking on behalf of some councilmembers to please their constituents and win votes.
“We can have Cinco de Mayo, we can have gay and lesbian week, we can give millions of dollars to an African-American culture center, but we can’t have a small plot of land in a cemetery with a flag on it?” Crayton said. “I think it’s a travesty.”