While the Confederate battle flag continues to roil passions in South Carolina and around the country, another Confederate flag has quietly flown atop North Carolina’s Capitol.
The first national flag of the Confederacy – the Stars and Bars – flies up to twice a year to commemorate Confederate holidays, state officials say.
For some, that’s twice too many.
“Would we fly the swastika above the state Capitol?” Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, said Tuesday. “And if the answer is no, we should not fly the Confederate national flag. Both represent some of the darkest periods in the world’s history.”
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On the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, Old South vestiges are everywhere in North Carolina and other Southern states of the former Confederacy. Drive into most towns, and it’s rare not to see a granite Confederate soldier or obelisk towering over the courthouse square.
Historic forts and battleground sites run by North Carolina all display Confederate national and battle flags as tools to interpret history, said Keith Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.
But since photos emerged of accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof brandishing a Confederate battle flag, reaction has rippled across the country. S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders called for its removal from their capitol grounds.
While the Confederate battle flag waves daily on the State House grounds in Columbia, flying the national flag in Raleigh twice a year has attracted little notice. Few state lawmakers even know it still flies.
“I’m not aware of any complaints,” Hardison said.
But back in 1992, about 100 protesters gathered near the Capitol on Confederate Flag Day. Leading them was Kelly Alexander Jr. of Charlotte, then state president of the NAACP. “We hope this will be the last year in which this flag flies,” he told a reporter at the time.
On Tuesday, Alexander, now a Democratic state representative, was surprised to hear the flag still flies on Confederate Memorial Day (May 10) and Robert E. Lee’s birthday (Jan. 19) at the request of a citizens group, usually the Sons of Confederate Veterans or Daughters of the Confederacy.
To him, as well as some other lawmakers, it doesn’t belong. “Whether it’s being flown once a day or once a year, the negative feeling is still there,” Alexander said.
When the General Assembly authorized the Confederate banner in 1961, it was the battle flag that flew atop the Capitol, said Fay Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Resources. At some point in the 1980s, she said, that was changed to the first national flag, with its three red and white stripes and a circle of seven stars in a blue field. Later flags had 13 stars.
Former Gov. Jim Martin, who took office in 1985, remembers the flag rarely caused a stir when it flew. “I don’t think many people cared one way or another,” he said Tuesday. “That was something routine to do at the time.”
The national flag, he said, was not as controversial.
“That’s why we didn’t put the battle flag on the Capitol,” he said. “It had been appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups. That was not part of the old Southern heritage, that was part of the new hatred movement.”
The flag hasn’t drawn the only protests over enduring Old South remnants.
Last month, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees voted to rename a building honoring Civil War Col. William Saunders, a graduate and Salisbury lawyer who apparently was a KKK organizer in the early 1870s. There was also talk of removing a monument of a Civil War soldier from the outskirts of campus near downtown Chapel Hill.
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio on Tuesday emailed commissioners after she learned of a Confederate memorial on county property near Memorial Stadium. She wants commissioners to “determine what action you would like to take.”
In Charlotte in 2005, former City Manager Pam Syfert ordered workers to remove the flagpole holding a Confederate battle flag at city-owned Elmwood Cemetery after eight months of debate over whether the flag should be flown.
UNC Charlotte historian David Goldfield was a member of a task force appointed to find a compromise. “The NAACP and African-Americans complained every time they went to visit the cemetery and had to go by this display of the Confederate battle flag,” Goldfield said. “On the other side, white Sons of the Confederacy felt disenfranchised. ... The problem was that there is just no compromise on this issue.”
Jim Steele, manager of the Civil War-era Fort Fisher state historic site, expects to hear more comments from visitors about the dozen Confederate flags displayed at the site. The site also displays Union flags.
“We hear an occasional comment, but not much over the years,” Steele said. “I think we’ll hear more. But I also think people understand that the flags here are used to provide historical context.”
Hardison said Civil War flags are at all the state Civil War sites.
“They are the flags that would have flown at these sites during that time,” he said. “Our mission is to interpret the history of North Carolina. We run museums.”