A Confederate heritage group’s plan to raise a large rebel battle flag near Richmond, Va., alongside one of the nation’s busiest interstate highways, is rekindling an emotional debate over the limits of freedom of expression.
Virginia Flaggers, a group promoting public display of the battle flag, has leased private land along Interstate 95 in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, and said it would raise the 12-foot by 15-foot “Stars and Bars” flag up a 50-foot flagpole at the site on Sept. 28 and leave it up indefinitely.
The group says the flag will honor Confederate soldiers and that it opposes any use of it as a racist symbol. Those against its display argue that the banner is inherently a symbol of slavery and segregation that will stir up racial ill-will.
The latest clash flows from a movement by advocates of Confederate heritage to place large battle flags on private land along major roadways in the South to try to re-establish the presence of an emblem they argue deserves a hallowed place in U.S. history. It would follow the placement of similar flags in other places, including near Interstate 75 in Tampa, Fla., and in South Georgia by other Confederate heritage groups.
More than 150 years after the Civil War began, the “Stars and Bars” flag still ignites controversy throughout the South. During the war, Confederate forces, fighting in part to preserve the institution of slavery, carried the banner into battle. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many supporters of segregation, including the Ku Klux Klan, displayed the flag as an emblem of their cause. In recent decades, the flag has encountered criticism from groups who see it as a symbol of racial intolerance.
Local politicians and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are protesting the plan to place the flag near Richmond, a former capitol of the Confederate States of America.
“I honor my ancestors but I’m not going to do that by flying a Confederate flag 150 years later,” said Jon Baliles, a Richmond city councilman who has called for people to speak out against the flag. “I would like people going up and down [Interstate] 95 to know Richmond is a lot different than it used to be.”