Black Southerner marching to D.C., seeks respect for Confederate flag

By Bryan McKenzie

Published: January 17, 2009

The Confederate battle flag billowed, flapped and fluttered in Friday’s cold wind as H.K. Edgerton led his one-man march up U.S. 29 to Washington in hopes of gaining a little respect.

Edgerton, 65, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is marching from his Black Mountain, N.C., home to ask President-elect Barack Obama to extend an olive branch to traditional Southerners. His improbable journey for an unlikely cause seeks what may be the politically impossible: official U.S. government recognition of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern heritage.

What makes Edgerton different than most advocates for his cause is that he’s black.

“I’m an African-American and I’m a Southerner and I believe my heritage, which is represented by the flag bearing the Christian Cross of St. Andrew, is being ignored and destroyed. It’s continuing to divide the black folks and the white folks who have a lot in common,” Edgerton said, stopping his forward march for a hot beverage at the Dunkin’ Donuts just north of Fray’s Mill Road.

“Mr. Obama said he is about unity and bringing this nation together. If he is truly a man of unity, I hope he will consider showing the Southerner that [the Southerner] is an important part of this country,” he said.

Edgerton offers advice on how that can be accomplished.

“He could have a Confederate color guard at the White House,” he said. “He could give the Confederate flag a respected place as part of the history and heritage of this country.”

That is unlikely to happen. The flag has become a magnet for racial division. Racists and white supremacy groups wave the flag to represent their cause and civil rights leaders point to the flag as a symbol of repression and slavery.

Edgerton insists that’s wrong.

“It does not represent slavery, although slavery was a fact of life. The flag represents a heritage, a way of life that my forebears had. It represents the men and the families that lived together and fought together to preserve their country from invasion,” Edgerton said. “My family volunteered for the Confederacy and fought side-by-side with white Southerners and Indian Southerners. They are all my family.”

A former president of the Asheville, N.C., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Edgerton has been a colorful and controversial figure. Civil rights advocates dismiss him as a tool of racists and “neo-Confederates” while Southern traditionalists have readily accepted him.

Opponents scoff at his apparent acceptance of life under slavery. Southern traditionalists note that recent Civil War research has proven his point about black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy.

One thing Edgerton has done is put his feet behind his words. He’s walked to Washington to meet President George W. Bush on the same topic. He’s walked to Texas. He protested at NASCAR events when racing officials expressed a desire to move away from the sport’s rural Southern heritage and the Confederate battle flags that often fly in the stands and infield.

He’s also active in a legal organization that has sued school districts for expelling students who wore T-shirts featuring the battle flag or other Confederate symbols.

Edgerton seems sincere. His piercing eyes hold a gaze, daring one to doubt. He drives home points with his hands. His voice rises and falls in cadence. He speaks with passion about his family, the relationship between whites and blacks in the South and the resulting harshness of occupation that followed the Civil War.

Research in the past decade has turned up information on regiments of black soldiers serving the South, most volunteer.

“I am Southerner. This flag is not about slavery, it’s about family and God and country. I have more in common with fellow Southerners like George Wallace than I do with [the Rev.] Al Sharpton,” Edgerton said. “I’m from the South. I’m of the South and my family is Southern, be they white, red, black or yellow. We share a heritage and a way of life.”

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