Vote keeps Confederate flag flying

Posted: Thursday, November 6, 2014
BY DENICE THIBODEAU

Danville City Council’s chambers were filled to capacity Thursday night with people interested in the outcome of the Confederate flag issue at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History — many of whom expressed themselves passionately.

In the end, Danville City Council followed the legal advice of City Attorney Clarke Whitfield and formally declined to remove the Confederate flag from the monument located on the lawn of the Sutherlin Mansion, which houses the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

It was the museum’s board which first brought up the idea of removing the flag from the mansion lawn as part of larger change in focus.

The Rev. William Avon Keen, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke out against leaving the flag in place, saying it is a “symbol of hate in the world today” and questioned the legality of flying the flag because of current hate crime laws.

The Rev. Lawrence Campbell brought chuckles when he identified himself as Councilman “Larry Campbell’s daddy,” but quickly reminded council of his history in the city during the Civil Rights era, when he was thrown down the stairs at the Municipal Building for daring to sit on the “white” side of the courthouse and his wife beaten during a peaceful protest march.

“I fought segregation,” Campbell Sr. said. “This flag is polarizing our community … I see it as people glorifying slavery.”

Tommy Bennett also spoke out against the flag, talking about treatment he and his grandmother received 50 years ago, when they were pushed off sidewalks, spit on when his grandmother first went to vote and other indignities. He said the only flag that should fly on public property is the American flag.

Katie Whitehead suggested getting an opinion from the state attorney general, saying she doesn’t think the law is clear.

Willie Wells said he attended the meeting to show support of the flag, pointing out that the Confederacy only existed for four years, and the flag never flew on a slave ship. He also said the biggest slave owner in Virginia was a black man and the country’s biggest slave owner was in Pennsylvania.

Wells said the flag displays a Christian symbol, the Southern Cross of St. Andrews, and should stay where it is at the museum.

Councilman Buddy Rawley twice asked speakers when both sides of the issue could move ahead of events that lasted 150 or 50 years ago, sparking outrage from Marcus Hughes.

“When can we get over it?” Hughes asked. “We can never get over it if we keep experiencing it.”

Rawley and Hughes traded a few more comments, until Mayor Sherman Saunders reminded them to stick to the issue under discussion.

Steve Adkins said the flag is displayed in a historically accurate place, a site that can be viewed as the “end of the Confederacy.” He also suggested that the museum could move if it doesn’t like the flag on its lawn.

“[The building] wasn’t designed to be a museum,” Adkins said. “It’s the last capitol of the Confederacy.”

For more than 90 minutes, people on both sides of the issue told council members how they felt.

Campbell then startled some council members by entering a substitute motion to simply vote on whether the flag should come down, saying he believes the law could be fought.

Rapid discussion followed.

Councilman John Gilstrap said he was surprised, that in other discussions, Campbell had expressed concern about the cost of litigation. Campbell said he believes it would be covered by the Virginia Municipal League.

Councilman Fred Shanks asked City Attorney Clarke Whitfield if the VML would definitely cover the costs; the answer was no.

Councilman Alonzo Jones said as someone who works with youth in the community, he would not support a motion that they have been told is illegal. He said returning the issue to the museum would allow them to pursue getting a decision at the state level.

A vote on Campbell’s suggestion brought a 2-7 response, with only Campbell and Mayor Sherman Saunders backing the idea.

Several revisions to the resolution were suggested, but it all boiled down to voting to tell the museum that council “cannot consider its request” to remove the flag.

That vote matched the previous one, with Saunders and Campbell voting against it.

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