The Confederate battle flag, also known
as the Southern cross flag.
State Sen. Doug Berger came to Henderson on Thursday night to talk about the stalled state budget, but the Confederate battle flag inspired the most passionate words of the meeting.
The issue arose when Paul Roberson asked Berger why he voted against S.B. 176, the Protection of Historic Monuments Act.
That bill was all but killed this month when a Senate committee that includes Berger split 8-8 along party lines on the measure and proposed amendments. Under the bill, introduced in the Senate by Hamilton Horton, a Forsyth County Republican, “No monument, memorial, plaque, marker, or historic flag display commemorating events, veterans, or persons of North Carolina history on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, altered, or defaced” without a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly or the state Historical Commission.
Confederate heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans are strong supporters of the bill as the best way to defend Confederate monuments and displays of the battle flag — the familiar red banner with the white stars on a blue X.
But Berger said the legislation would make it almost impossible to remove anything considered historical from public land. He said a Nazi flag, for example, would have the same protection as the American flag. He also said that while the Confederate battle flag is appropriate in some places, such as Civil War battlefields and Confederate cemeteries, it is offensive to some people in other public areas.
Berger said he tried to amend the bill to give the governor and the state Human Rights Commission the same power as the legislature and the Historical Commission to remove flags and other historical markers, but that amendment failed on the same 8-8 vote as the overall bill, with Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides.
“I have come under fire for voting against it,” Berger said, citing the SCV among organizations leading the e-mail assault. He said critics have questioned his patriotism, among other nasty comments, and he was prepared to fight back Thursday night.
The senator explained that the bill originated in the House as an effort to protect the U.S. flag, and it cleared that chamber on a 114-2 vote. Berger said he remains in favor of legislation to protect the American flag, but he said Republican senators saw the bill as an opportunity to score political points by adding Confederate controversy to the mix.
“We shouldn’t play politics with the American flag,” Berger said.
The senator, Roberson and a recently retired 41-year military veteran from Oxford, Norman Dean, proceeded to have a passionate but friendly discussion about the appropriate uses of the battle flag.
The discussion included brief history lessons on Confederate flags and on North Carolina’s reluctant participation in the War Between the States as a part of the Confederacy.
Berger, who called himself a student of North Carolina history, said most of the state was against secession but, as with the lottery, the Tar Heel State went along with what all of its neighbors did.
Dean said North Carolina did not respond to peer pressure so much as anger and fear after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern secessionists.
Roberson acknowledged the 40,000 North Carolinians who ultimately fought on the Union side.
Regarding the battle flag, Berger said people must realize that the banner offends people, particularly blacks. Even though it’s a symbol of people who fought for their homes and families 140 years ago, he said, the image burned in the public mind is the use of the Confederate banner by the Ku Klux Klan.
“I hate the Ku Klux Klan,” Roberson said. “They ruined the South.”
But he said it’s wrong to let the Klan distort the meaning of an important part of Southern heritage. He also noted that Klan marches in the 1960s usually followed two flags: the Confederate battle flag and the American flag. But only the Confederate emblem suffers the Klan stain.
“They desecrated both emblems, in my opinion,” Roberson said.
The first national flag of the Confederacy,
the Stars and Bars.
Dean corrected Berger on one historical note — Berger mistakenly referred to the battle flag as the Stars and Bars, which was the first flag of the Confederacy and is similar to the North Carolina flag — and then explained his perspective on the battle flag as both a Vietnam veteran and the great-great-grandson of a Confederate soldier who was part of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
He said he earned and proudly wore his Vietnam combat patch, even though people in America were divided over the war and saw the patch as a symbol of hate worn by baby-killers. Dean said the battle flag was the combat patch for Confederate veterans, and their descendants similarly want to display it as a sign of proud service even though others see a different meaning.
“Don’t look at it as a divisive item,” Dean said. “This was their combat patch.”
Berger said the battle flag has its place, as do Confederate monuments, such as the statue standing outside the old courthouse on Young Street where the meeting was taking place. But he said state law already protects historical monuments from desecration, and the Confederate flag and other banners do not deserve the same absolute protection as the American flag.
The senator said he appreciated the “healthy discussion,” and he hoped the exchange showed that he’s not the anti-American monster portrayed by his critics since the votes on the monuments bill.