Confederate flag in parade draws attention of nation

By Diana Alba Soular
Posted:   07/10/2012

LAS CRUCES — Controversy surrounding a Confederate flag displayed on the grand-prize winning float in the city’s Independence Day parade — for better or for worse —has garnered a national spotlight.

And the Las Cruces Tea Party’s parade float has sparked a debate about the constitutional guarantee to freedom of expression, prompting the ACLU of New Mexico to weigh in defending the group’s right to unhindered speech.

The Huffington Post and a blog with The Atlantic picked up on local coverage of the divide Tuesday, further fueling discussion about whether the flag — actually the historical naval banner flown by the Confederate States of America —was proper or offensive. Some have contended it’s simply acknowledging political history; others have argued it glorifies America’s painful past of slavery and racial discrimination.

Las Crucen Crystal Silva wasn’t alone in her belief that the topic has garnered "way too much attention." She said there are more important issues.

"People fly the Confederate flags on their vehicles every day and nobody makes a big deal about it so who cares if they decide to fly the flag on their float?" she said in Facebook message.

Some criticized the unflattering light the debate has cast upon Las Cruces.

Still, other residents feel it hasn’t received enough attention. Las Crucen Jamie Bronstein said the matter "won’t have received enough attention until the Las Cruces Tea Party expresses embarrassment for making Las Cruces look like the idiot capital of the world."

The Tea Party has said its goal was to represent historical flags of the state, and the Confederacy had a brief stint in New Mexico’s capital.

The debate has drawn heavy interest from the southern U.S. Interested people professing to be Civil War aficionados have sent dozens of emails to Sun-News editors expressing support for the use of the Confederate flag.

Mayor Ken Miyagishima, who apologized Monday for any "pain that this has caused," said he has received numerous emails from southern U.S. residents upset by his comments. Not only they, but others have chimed in since July 3, when the parade took place, he said. In all, he estimated he’s received 1,000 emails on the topic.

Miyagishima said he was concerned about the image of Las Cruces — a city that tends to be racially tolerant and generous.

"That’s why I tried to act as quickly as I could," he said. "I was getting calls out of Houston asking why this was happening."

Freedom to express

Is there anything to stop someone from filling a float in next year’s Las Cruces Electric Light Parade with Confederate flags?

Despite ideas discussed by some city councilors and Las Crucens to curb the possible appearance of another Confederate flag in the future, placing restrictions on someone’s speech because of the content runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution, according to a recent letter sent to Miyagishima by the ACLU of New Mexico.

"Although many may find the Tea Party’s display of the Confederate flag offensive, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the Party’s right to speak, even when the subject matter is unpopular," wrote Laura Schauer Ives, legal director for the ACLU of New Mexico.

Ideas such as deciding not to issue parade awards to political or religious groups or attempting to set guidelines for the float’s content — and policing them before the start of the parade — amount to "impermissible, content-based discrimination," Schauer said.

Miyagishima said the city isn’t contemplating restrictions on speech, but rather is looking at revising the judging criteria for float awards and possibly the process for appointing judges.

"We’re not trying to do anything to censor anybody or prohibiting anything they want to put on their float," he said.

The city council will take up the topic during a July 23 meeting, Miyagishima said.

Las Cruces Tea Party Secretary Jo Wall, who’s assured the float was never meant to offend, said Tuesday she supports the right to free speech.

"I do believe everybody has the right to free sppech, and they should not be prohibited, unless it would create danger," she said.

Continued Wall: "We didn’t think this would (offend), but obviously we were not correct. If the situation ever arose again, we’d definitely be more careful and consider almost-impossible situations that are going to occur."

El Paso Electric Co., a financial sponsor of the parade, has threatened to withdraw its financial support in future years "unless criteria are established by the city to prevent such an outcome in the future."

Tuesday, El Paso Electric Co. spokeswoman Teresa Souza said the company has yet to hear back formally from the city.

Heidi Beirich, a director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the group has had plenty of battles over the display of Confederate flags on public property in the South. And, while she couldn’t weigh on in the freedom of expression question with respect to Las Cruces’ parade, Beirich said the display during an Independence Day event is "outrageous."

"It’s just that everybody from the Klan to all sorts of hate groups use this symbol," she said. "There’s just no denying the racism in that symbol."

Different flags

The version of the Confederate flag that appeared on the Tea Party’s float July 3 was actually the official naval flag — not the version that flew in New Mexico.

Three national flags, a battle flag and two versions of a naval flag were used by the Confederate States of America as "official" flags, said Sam Craghead, spokesman for the Richmond, Va.,-based The Museum of the Confederacy.

The first national flag, used between March 1861 and May of 1863, represented the initial seven states that had seceded, according to Craghead.

It resembled the flag of the union, with white stars against a blue patch and three red and white stripes.

The second national flag, in use from May 1863 to March 1865, featured a revamped, Southern Cross design in the canton area — the upper left-hand corner of the flag — on an otherwise solid-white banner, Craghead said. But that flag was sometimes mistaken for a surrender flag, when it wasn’t flapping in the wind. That’s why a red, vertical stripe was added in March 1865 to the right edge to get the third national flag.

The two naval flags were derived from the two designs in the canton area — which were expanded to cover the entire rectangular area of the flag, Craghead said.

The second version of the naval flag, used when a ship was in port or at anchor, has become most commonly associated with the Confederacy, Craghead said.

"It’s strange the one that was used the least has become the most recognized," he said.

That’s the version that was included on the Tea Party’s float.

Wall said the group wasn’t aware it wasn’t the correct flag that had flown in New Mexico.

"We had a whole bunch of flags, and that’s what would fit on the float," she said. "We knew the Confederate flag flew over the state. We were going through what flags were left over after the windstorm."

The final, official Confederate flag was a square-shaped battle flag, which bears the so-called Southern Cross design. It was carried by infantry.

Craghead clarified that some units in Tennessee used a rectangular Southern Cross as a battle flag, but the shape was more typically affiliated with the naval jack.

Copyright © 2012 MediaNews Group

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