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Confederate flag controversy rains on Veterans Day Parade

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

At Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, a controversy over the Confederate flag led to high drama replete with stirring statements and ultimately one official’s public resignation from an independent committee.

County Veterans Services Officer Olie Pope told the commissioners that he would step down from his volunteer role as chair of the Travis County Veterans Day Parade Committee. While the committee – which is not a part of county government – organizes the annual parade in downtown Austin, Pope and other staff within the Veterans Services Office handle much of the parade’s administrative work. His abrupt announcement came immediately after County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the court would not take action to try to ban the display of the Confederate flag during the parade.

The episode highlighted recently renewed recognition of the flag as a historic symbol of white supremacism and racial terrorism. Across the country, the flag has faced a fresh series of defeats in the wake of a mass shooting this summer at a historically black South Carolina church, allegedly at the hands of an avowed white supremacist.

Unlike neighboring Texas counties (and the state of Texas itself), Travis has no official monument to the Confederacy or the soldiers who fought under its banner. However, the Descendants of Confederate Veterans – a group dedicated to maintaining “an honorable, non-racist Southern heritage” – is keen on continuing its tradition of flying the battle flag from its float in the annual Veterans Day parade.

“We are not the only group representing veterans of previous wars,” Terry Ayers, spokesman for the Descendents, told the commissioners on Tuesday. “Those groups dress in uniforms of the time period in which the war occurred,” he said. “Many carry weapons, flags and banners for that time period. We are no different. And I assure you, it is a real crowd-pleaser.”

In August, the parade committee voted to allow the organization to continue to display the flag, a decision that caught Eckhardt’s attention in October. According to Ayers, she suggested that the county could back out as a sponsor of the parade if the committee upheld that vote.

When the committee did uphold the vote, Eckhardt made good on her promise by bringing the issue before the commissioners on Tuesday. Ayers denounced that move as unfair to his group. He said, “We have gone from being just another entry in the parade to now being the center of a controversy that we did not create, we did not seek, we did not want, we did not need. And certainly one we did not and do not deserve.”

Nelson Linder, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, followed Ayers’ comments with a rhetorical assault on the symbolism of the Confederate flag. He started off by citing Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens’ infamous argument that white supremacy formed the foundation of the rebel republic. Linder also questioned the Descendents’ claims to honor American veterans.

“You talk about being an American soldier,” said Linder. “What America are you talking about? You guys tried to destroy this country. You didn’t try to preserve it. You fought based on the economic profits from slavery.”

Following Linder’s impassioned remarks, the commissioners took the item behind closed doors into executive session. They emerged almost an hour later only to break for an hour-long lunch.

Upon resuming, Eckhardt invited her fellow commissioners to weigh in on the issue. Commissioner Ron Davis, the only African-American on the dais, was the first to tee off. He explained that seeing the flag brings back memories of his family members who were touched by slavery and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. “So it’s very bothersome and very troublesome when you see it as an African-American,” he said. “Maybe not nobody else, but for an African-American, it is very troublesome to us.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, following Davis, said that this was “a difficult situation” and warned of a “wedge” that could divide the community. But he said that the flag, for better or worse, is part of the country’s heritage.

“I, quite frankly, think that everything that’s in the parade does have some significance,” said Daugherty. “I realize that that significance to some people is very offensive. I don’t personally feel that way, and … that’s the reason that I will vote against trying to force anybody to take anything out of the parade.”

Eckhardt explained that the point of the discussion before them was to give Pope some direction on how to act on behalf of the county as the chair of the parade committee. She also laid out her objections to the flag display.

“I am a fifth-generation Texan, and Eckhardts have fought in almost every armed conflict of both Texas and the United States since the late 1830s,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I take a tremendous amount of pride in my family heritage. And my great uncle was a Confederate officer, but I find no honor in the cause of the Confederacy.”

Eckhardt noted that Confederate General Robert E. Lee never flew the flag or wore his uniform following his surrender in 1865. She declared, “150 years later, I think it’s long past time to lay down the Confederate battle flag and consign it to history books and museums so that we never forget our heritage.”

She ended by saying that the commissioners wouldn’t take any action to give direction to Pope then and there but pledged to look for ways to “disassociate ourselves from this decision of the independent Veterans Day Parade.”

At that point, Pope informed the commissioners that he was proud of the work he had done throughout his years as chair of the parade committee. However, he announced he would step down from that post without giving a specific reason.

As he exited the courtroom, Pope politely declined the Austin Monitor’s request for comment. On Tuesday evening, however, Eckhardt released a statement explaining that a “majority of the Commissioners Court voiced opposition to display of the Confederate Battle Flag and voiced support for Mr. Pope divesting himself and his staff of administrative duties for the parade.”

Eckhardt said she expects the parade to continue and that the county “will make every attempt to withdraw its administrative support in a way that does not imperil this year’s parade.”

Photo by Jack made available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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