Confederate flag talk sparks tension at NAACP meeting

Diana Alba Soular
Posted:   08/09/2012

LAS CRUCES — There was potential for fireworks when members of the Las Cruces Tea Party presented Thursday to the local NAACP chapter about using a Confederate flag on a parade float.

While tempers within the audience flared and voices strained on both sides of the discussion, the session was mostly civil.

Still, it seemed both Tea Party and NAACP members walked away with frustrations.

A handful of Tea Party members told the audience of about 40 people that the flag was a nod to the state’s history, which included a Confederate presence, and noted it was one of 28 banners on their float in the Las Cruces Independence Day parade. They also said they see it as a statement of rebellion against an overreaching federal government, but not as a racist symbol.

"The flag is not meant as offensive to anyone," said Tea Party member Betty Russell, in responding to a question from the audience. "That flag represents rebellion against tyranny to all people."

Some NAACP attendees asked President Lola Lestrick to articulate to the Tea Party presenters what the Confederate banner means to them.

"That flag is about slavery and oppression of African Americans," she said solemnly. "That flag is hurtful to us and our ancestors and our history."

Olga Pedroza, an NAACP member who’s also a city councilor, asked the Tea Party members if they’d attended the session to offer an apology.

They responded by saying they weren’t and that the flag was historical.

"I know it won’t change your mind, but we wanted to show our history when we built it," Russell said.

At one point, an audience member shouted out: "Does this mean you’re planning to do it again?"

Doña Ana County Commissioner Leticia Duarte-Benavidez and Bill McCamley, a candidate for state representative, attended and questioned the Tea Party about the flag, as did a number of visibly upset NAACP members.

"Would you have put a Swastika on your float?" Duarte-Benavidez said. "Because the Confederate flag is as offensive to African Americans, as a Swastika is to the Jewish people."

NAACP official Curtis Rosemond, also manager of a local Walmart, at times stepped in to moderate when tensions began to build.

To start the meeting, Tea Party member Harvey Baldwin, who was in charge of the parade float, gave a roughly 10-minute presentation about the float. He noted it contained many other flags, photos and posters reflecting New Mexico history. Key historical dates were listed on the float, he said, including the years when Native Americans were granted the right to vote, women were given the right to vote, the state Roundhouse was dedicated and Buddy Holly recorded tunes in Clovis.

But Baldwin said his decision to use the Confederate flag boiled down to him seeing himself as "a rebel —under one of the definitions."

"I’m scared of the way the federal government is wasting our money," he said. "We’re going to become indentured servants to China, and being an indentured servant is no different from being a slave."

Baldwin said a Mexican flag would have been displayed on the float, but it was tattered. He said it wasn’t respectful to fly a damaged flag.

Baldwin didn’t stay the whole session. He left early to attend another meeting, he said.

Tea Party members fielded a number of heated questions from attendees focused upon the group’s mission and whether the organization —including on the national level — was a political party or not. Tea Party members said it’s not a formal party. They also invited members of the NAACP to attend a Tea Party meeting to find out more about their group.

Carol Cooper, Tea Party member, said one of the organization’s focus is to research policy topics in-depth and stick to the Constitution.

"We all need to study the issues," she said. "The policymakers have gotten us into a lot of trouble."

The discussion ended at a tense point. Tea Party members thanked the NAACP and left the meeting.

Copyright © 2012 MediaNews Group

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