Confederate flag flying halted

Lee’s birthday celebration, Obama inauguration coincide
Gary Emerling (Contact)
Monday, February 2, 2009

Change came to the streets of Alexandria for the inauguration of President Obama.

The historic Virginia city has for years permitted the flying of Confederate flags on Jan. 19 to mark the birthday of Civil War general and home-state hero Robert E. Lee. But during the four days celebrating Mr. Obama – the country’s first black president – no Stars and Bars were in sight.

Political correctness or the result of a city strained to the max? Perhaps a little of both.

"My thing is for a new president that preaches inclusion, how come we’re not included?" said Debby Mullins, president of a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has had an agreement with the city to fly the flags for nearly 40 years. "You know, it’s three little flags."

Since 1970, Alexandria officials have permitted the group to fly Confederate flags at Prince and South Washington streets, where Alexandria troops evacuated the city after its occupation by Union forces.

The banner that would have been flown in Alexandria is the first national flag of the Confederacy – also known as the Stars and Bars. The Confederate states’ best-known and most controversial banner is the battle flag, also known as the "Southern Cross."

Ms. Mullins said she was first alerted that the group’s flags would not be flown by a phone call from Richard Baier, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services.

She said Mr. Baier told her that the decision was made at a Jan. 16 staff meeting and was the result of such factors as activities surrounding the inauguration and the current political climate.

In a letter dated the same day to Ms. Mullins, Alexandria City Manager James K. Hartmann noted that millions of people were expected in the D.C. region to celebrate the historic inauguration of Mr. Obama, a Democrat.

He said the city’s resources were being directed toward addressing "inaugural traffic and crowd control, access and security issues."

"Given the historical significance and scope of the inaugural activities, our own staff constraints, and the extent of the impact of the inaugural activities on us, I am suspending our agreement to raise the Confederate flags for this occasion," Mr. Hartmann wrote. "I would be happy to talk to you about how we handle this in the future. But for January 2009, we will not be raising the flags as we have in the past."

The Confederate flag is a familiar source of controversy in Virginia and other states, where some see it as a part of the country’s historical lineage and others as a symbol of slavery and racism.

In South Carolina, nearly 50,000 people marched on the state Capitol in 2000 during a successful protest calling for the flag to be removed from above the State House dome, in Columbia.

Last October, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the Museum of the Confederacy, in Richmond, issued an apology to a Chesterfield County man whose campaign yard sign supporting Mr. Obama was taken and replaced with a Confederate flag.

Alexandria spokesman Tony Castrilli said Mr. Hartmann’s letter essentially explained the reasons that the flags were not flown in the city.

The letter mentions the city’s policy of flying Confederate flags Jan. 18 when Lee’s birthday coincides with the national holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King.

Lance Mallamo, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, said he attended the Jan. 16 meeting at Mr. Hartmann’s office where the flag agreement had been discussed.

He said there was one Stars and Bars flag at the meeting, so officials knew which type of flag would go up. But the banner had been in a box and there were no other mounting materials such as ropes or poles along with it.

"It looked like there was more involved logistically to get these up then to just go and pop a pole in the bracket," Mr. Mallamo said.

He also said the city had scheduled a celebration of Lee’s birthday for Jan. 17 at the Fort Ward Museum and has featured the general prominently on a timeline of Alexandria history near the Torpedo Factory Art Center on Union Street.

"Certainly, there was no attempt to slight Robert E. Lee," he said.

Ms. Mullins said she understands the challenges and delicate balance the city had to strike. Her chapter has permission to fly the flags in May to mark Confederate Memorial Day, she said.

She also said the main issue was timing – and if not for another historical event, the controversy would have been avoided.

"It just happened to be that was Robert E. Lee’s birthday weekend," she said. "If the inauguration had been in March like it used to be, we wouldn’t have had this problem."

©2009 The Washington Times

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