The Paducah City Commission has upheld a 2017 resolution banning Confederate flags from the city’s annual Veterans Day parade.
The panel voted 3-1 against a proposal, introduced by Commissioner Richard Abraham and backed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that would have lifted the ban.
Commissioner Abraham on his proposal
At the commission’s Jan. 8 meeting, Abraham said he believed that the resolution violated the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech. Abraham spoke against the ban on the Confederate flag, but Mayor Brandi Harless was absent on a trip to China and no action was taken.
Then, in a post on Facebook before Tuesday’s meeting, Abraham said “I have been in conversations with members of SCV, who have acted as gentlemen through this whole issue. They are sensitive to the fact that certain banners of their history were used in hate towards others. But our understanding was reached based on ‘reasoning together.’ This will no longer be an issue to this parade.”
In presenting his proposal at the January 22 meeting, Abraham said that “after following the facts with much prayer, I have finally come to realize our problem is not about a flag or a symbol….Our problem rests in government overreach.”
Letters read in support of the ban of the Confederate flag
Representatives of the NAACP and the Race Unity Group of Paducah read letters to the commission supporting the ban. Abraham, who is mayor pro-tem, belongs to neither organization, according to J.W. Cleary, Paducah-McCracken County NAACP president.
The NAACP letter
The NAACP letter, read at the meeting by Paducah chapter Vice President Corbin Snardon, said the NAACP “along with numerous other concerned citizens were disheartened and disappointed at the shameful comments made in reference to the Confederate flag by Commissioner and Mayor Pro-Tempore Richard Abraham at the city commission meeting held on January 8.”
The NAACP letter said the Confederate flag represented “a tarnishing legacy of racial discrimination and hatred.” The letter then praised “American Veterans…for their service to our country.”
Fearing newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans would abolish slavery, 11 Southern slave states—Kentucky not among them—seceded from the Union in 1860-1861. They created the Confederate States of America based on a constitution that guaranteed slavery and white supremacy. The Confederacy then fought the United States in the most lethal war in American history.
“Though individuals are entitled to their own personal beliefs, that does not change the fact that the Confederacy then and now stands as a symbol of divisiveness and racism,” the letter also said.
The Race Unity letter
The Race Unity letter, presented by Brad Holland and Tony Gerard, maintained that “the organizers of a public event have the right to pick and choose what they deem appropriate for their event.” It described the Confederate flag as the banner “of a people willing to potentially die in order to deny basic human rights to people of a different race.
“Soldiers of the United States of America fought and died to gain freedom for those individuals. Descendants of those same people, former slaves, have served honorably in that and every US conflict since.”
Commissioners speak out
Commissioners Gerald Watkins, Sandra Wilson, and Brenda McElroy voted against Abraham’s resolution.
“I really do not know why this [the repeal resolution] is even on our agenda.,” Wilson said. “This was debated, and discussed, and voted on in 2017, and it was approved by unanimous vote of the city commission members who were in attendance. And in my opinion nothing has changed since then.”
Wilson addressed Abraham’s First Amendment concerns. “Because of your comments…at the last meeting about it, we’ve had three legal opinions.” All three said the ban did not infringe on First Amendment rights because the parade was “a limited public forum.”
Watkins said the Confederate flag offends “a very large segment of our population, including the African-American community, which is 25 per cent of the population of the city of Paducah.”
Approximately 100 people attended the Tuesday meeting, according to Watkins. Several people spoke; all but one opposed Abraham’s resolution. No members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans spoke.
Cleary was pleased with the vote and hopes it will end the controversy. “But I don’t understand why [Abraham and the SCV] opened the can of worms back up.”
He said the commission “had this thing resolved.”
Cleary said the Confederate flag reflected treason as well as support for slavery and white supremacy. “The Confederates fought the United States of America.”
Mayor watches via YouTube, posts comment on Facebook
Mayor Brandi Harless, who has supported the ban all along, watched the January 22 meeting on YouTube from a Chicago airport.
“Sorry I cannot be there,” she posted on Facebook. “I am on my way home from an economic development trip to China. But to be honest, I am tired of talking about the confederate flag. Our attention has been diverted for too long.”
The mayor added, “For the last 2 years I have spoken with the organization [SCV] about their flag. I have chosen to treat them with kindness and respect even though I do not agree with them. It is time to move on.
“I am proud of our community for speaking out against symbols that are not inclusive.”
The SCV argument and its rebuttal
In arguing for the flag being allowed in the parade, the SCV claimed that in 1958, Congress approved a law that gave Confederate veterans equal status to U.S. veterans.
“But in fact, the law does not do what Confederate apologists say it does,” Sue Sturgis wrote in Facing South, the Institute for Southern Studies’ online magazine. “It certainly does not ‘pardon’ Confederate veterans, nor does it generally give them status ‘equal to’ U.S. veterans.”
The 2015 article is titled, “Busting the myth that Congress made Confederate vets into U.S. vets.”
In 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation granting full amnesty and the restoration of citizenship rights to Confederate veterans. But while they were fighting during the war, the federal and Kentucky governments considered them enemy combatants.
Sturgis added that the 1958 law “was introduced to raise pensions for widows and former widows of deceased veterans of the Spanish-American War. In committee, it was amended to include widows of deceased U.S. veterans of the Civil War and Indian War, as well as widows of Confederate veterans.”
Meanwhile, prominent Civil War historians contacted during the 2017 controversy over the flag agreed with Sturgis and with the ban.
“I would not have Confederate marchers in a Veteran’s Day parade,” said Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of numerous Civil War books. “Confederate veterans had not been U.S. soldiers—they had been C.S. soldiers. There is a reason they are not buried in national cemeteries … but rather in what amount to C.S. national cemeteries.”
Charles B. Dew said, “Confederate veterans are not buried in U.S. military cemeteries, nor is the CSA flag flown there.”
Dew is an author and Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College. “If the South had won the Civil War, the result would have been what Gary Gallagher refers to in his superb book The Confederate War as the establishment of a slave-based republic, for whites only, obviously. The display of the CSA flag today in a publicly-sanctioned setting is, in effect, an endorsement of the Confederacy and that reality. This, of course, insults everyone who loathes the institution of human bondage, blacks and whites alike.”
Anne E. Marshall is a Lexington native and author of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: Civil War Memory in a Border State. She cited Sturgis’ article, but suggested, “I think that rather than the focusing on the nature of Confederate actions between 1861-65, the real issue for Paducah is that the SCV has since its inception continued to uphold the ‘Lost Cause’ version of history, and in recent years, has been obstructionist (or at the very least insensitive) to what has become the broadly accepted opinion of most scholars and American public citizens, that Confederate symbolism evokes a history of racism and divisiveness.”
(Editor’s note: Daniel Hurt was at the Jan. 22 commission meeting,
and helped produce this report.)