The Confederate battle flag, then the banner of armies that declared war on the United States, and now a symbol of white nationalism, being displayed in Barnardsville's Fourth of July parade. Faces of the participants were obscured by Asheville Watchdog because they appear to be minors. // Photo captured from Big Ivy Community Center website

It is one insidious piece of cloth.

The Confederate flag, I’m talking about. Yes, technically a Confederate battle flag, for the purists out there.

You know it — the crossed blue bars full of white stars on a red background. The rebel flag.

I know it better than most, probably, having grown up in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. I graduated from Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, a Richmond suburb and the site of a major Civil War battle.

For our sports teams, we were the “Confederates.” And it was fairly common for a couple of students to run around the football stadium waving the Confederate battle flag, including when our team went up against the primarily Black high schools in the area.

And yes, we had Black guys and girls at Lee-Davis, and they too wore those “Confederate” uniforms. Even the individual buildings on our campus were named for Confederate generals.

Hard to believe now, but that’s just the way it was then.

And of course, Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue was home to a half dozen enormous statues honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, among others. Yes, a statue of African American tennis player and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was erected in the 1990s, although it was a huge battle to get it approved.

The Confederate battle flag and the Ku Klux Klan made resurgences during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s

You might surmise that my high school’s name was changed after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and all the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue have come down. You are correct.

Because, well, they represented a racist regime that enslaved millions of African Americans for centuries and started a war to preserve their system of treating some human beings as property.

That Confederate battle flag also was largely retired, as it became interwoven with white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan and honestly, hatred, mostly during and after the flag’s resurgence in the 1950s. Coincidentally, that’s the same era when Blacks began pushing hard for civil rights and equal rights.

In June 2015, after the horrendous slaughter of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate flag began what I thought surely would be its death spiral. That’s because photos soon emerged of the killer, Dylann Roof, waving the Confederate flag in one hand and a firearm in another. In another photo, he’s burning the United States flag.

Dylann Roof posted an image of himself on social media with the Confederate battle flag and a handgun. He later murdered nine Black people at a Charleston church.

His twisted, racist, white supremacist manifesto detailed his plans of starting a race war. That’s what his slaughter of nine innocent people engaged in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was intended to do, but instead it had an opposite effect.

The association of such overt racism and hatred with the Confederate flag finally was too much for even the South Carolina legislature, which voted to remove the emblem from state capitol grounds. Previously, it had been removed from atop the Capitol dome but remained on the grounds, and even that move created a political and social uproar.

By the way, the Confederate flag had been displayed on South Carolina State House grounds only since 1961, having not appeared there since the end of the Civil War nearly a century before. Again, please pick up on the connection to the civil rights movement and the message the Confederate flag was meant to send: Whites were in charge and always would be.

Perhaps naively, between the tragedies in Charleston and Minneapolis, I thought the Confederate flag would finally end up where it belongs — in the dustbin of American history. 

Southern heritage: The 13 white stars on the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia represent the 13 states that went to war against the United States of America to establish a government based on white supremacy.

But it’s like a cancer. A sneaky, cunning kind of cancer that keeps returning to attempt to defile and destroy its host — and that’s what it does, even when those waving it think they’re celebrating their “Southern heritage.”

What it’s really doing is eating away at their own position in this world, because rightly or wrongly, people are going to associate those waving that flag with hate and racism.

What happened in Barnardsville

Nationally, we saw it reemerge at the U.S. Capitol during the Trump-inspired Jan. 6, 2021 riots.

Locally, most recently the cancer emerged again in Barnardsville during that small community’s July 4th parade. A reader sent me photos of the parade, which appeared to be a small affair featuring some local fire trucks, a Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and a few pickup trucks.

In one of those trucks is a group of younger people. Off the back hangs a large Confederate battle flag.

As the reader told me, this was, “A parade that kicked off at the local elementary school and county employees and vehicles were in the parade. And the parade was organized by the community center that is partially funded by Buncombe County, and the facility itself is owned by Buncombe County. I contacted the county commissioners as well but have not heard back anything.”

The reader is correct here — Buncombe County owns the Big Ivy Community Center in Barnardsville and leases it to the community organization. 

County spokesperson Lillian Govus said the county had no organizational role with the parade, and the county does not condone display of a Confederate flag.

“Our core values include equity, so it’s as simple as that,” Govus said.

I reached out to the Barnardsville Fire Department. Chief Kevin Mundy confirmed the department was in the parade but said the Big Ivy Resource Center organized it. I was referred to a board member who headed up the effort, but I was unable to reach her by deadline.

Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, said the department does not vet parade participants before agreeing to participate with a Sheriff’s vehicle.

“I don’t think that’s the role of law enforcement,” Sarver said.

But the department does not condone the display of the flag by its personnel.

“If a deputy had a Confederate flag on their vehicle, that would violate policy,” Sarver said.

‘It reminds me of a past I don’t want to remember’

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides, whose district includes the Barnardsville area, told me July 14 that he had not heard about the flag in the parade.

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides

Like me, Whitesides said he’s seen fewer and fewer Confederate flags around here.

“I really had gotten to the point, to be honest, that I don’t pay it any attention anymore,” Whitesides said. “When I’m out and about, I don’t really see that many of them.”

Still, he was disappointed to hear about this one being so prominently displayed in Barnardsville during a parade. I asked what it means to him when he does see a Confederate flag on display.

“What it means to me, being African-American, when I see that flag it reminds of people who are trying to take us back, not forward,” said Whitesides, 78. “It reminds me of a past I don’t want to remember.”

That past includes the battles of the civil rights movement, the Jim Crow era of systemic racism and separate, lesser facilities for Blacks. It includes slavery and lynchings and separations of Black families. Discrimination in housing, education and the workplace. Second-place status.

In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander H. Stevens said the Confederacy was the world’s first government founded on the principle of white supremacy, and that Northern efforts to limit the enslavement of African Americans was the “immediate cause” of the coming war.

Look, the Civil War was about slavery — ending it, from the northern perspective, or preserving it, from the southern perspective. It’s well-documented in numerous Confederate states’ articles of secession that slavery was a driving force behind their decision to leave the United States.

Their economy, their way of life was built on the ownership of Black human beings, whom they considered an inferior race. Sure, you can say the war was about states’ rights, but the number-one right they wanted to preserve was the right to own another human being.

I realize that some people from the South truly believe that their ancestors fought for noble reasons — to preserve their home territory, or for the man next to them in some godforsaken trench outside Fredericksburg. And they probably did.

But the Confederacy’s larger cause was the preservation of slavery, plain and simple. And as history has shown us, that was an evil institution.

After the war, the South was poisoned by the “Lost Cause” narrative that ascribed nobility and even purity to the cause, euphemistically calling the conflict the “War between the States,” or the “War of Northern Aggression.” Often driven by the United Daughters of the Confederacy or like organizations, hundreds of Southern cities erected statues honoring Confederate leaders or rank and file soldiers, as well as Southern politicians.

UNC-Chapel Hill historian William Sturkey touched on all of this in an excellent op-ed from July 2020 regarding Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and its debate over removing a Confederate monument. Sturkey calls out the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a group that fabricated and ignored history, and “promoted the morality of the Confederacy and ignored basic facts of the past.”

Regarding these emblems of the Confederacy, Sturkey simply nails it.

“At a time when the South yet again faces an opportunity for repair, why do so many insist on prioritizing the relics left behind by those who warped history to tear us apart?” he writes.

‘They can say it’s not a symbol of hate, and they may even believe that’

Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, said the Confederate flag “ebbs and flows” in popularity. For instance, its popularity increased after the election of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, in 2008.

He also noted that the flag’s resurgence in the South came in the 1950s when the Dixiecrats, including former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond adopted it as a symbol of steadfastness.

Symbols like this flag are tough to stamp out in part because “people think they can put whatever values on them they want,” Cooper said.

“They can say it’s not a symbol of hate, and they may even believe that,” Cooper said. “And no amount of history lessons is going to change that attitude.”

In some cases, people do know the history, and maybe that’s the message they want to send, Cooper said. In other words, that white people are still in charge.

Tom Petty, a Florida native, later said he regretted using the rebel flag as a prop.

Cooper’s a little younger than I am, but we both came of age in the same era. He brought up one of my favorite rock n roll musicians, Tom Petty. In 1985, Petty launched a tour promoting his album “Southern Accents,” and he used a giant Confederate battle flag onstage as a backdrop.

In 2015, after Dylann Roof and Charleston, Petty conducted an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, expressing remorse for using the flag.

“The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” Petty told the magazine. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo.”

He didn’t give it much thought, Petty said, but he should have. Later in life, Petty clearly thought much more deeply about that Confederate standard. 

“[The flag] shouldn’t represent us in any way,” Petty told Rolling Stone. “It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person.”

Cooper shared another anecdote that was telling. While teaching in Germany a few years ago, he saw a Confederate flag on the back of a car.

Later, he asked his students about it, saying, “I know what it means at home, but what does it mean here?”

“One of my students said, ‘It’s the only hate symbol that’s legal in Germany,’” Cooper said. 

Like it or not, that’s what the Confederate flag is here in this country now, too — a hate symbol.

Let’s hope Barnardsville is a little more careful about its Independence Day parade next year. 

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.

28 replies on “Opinion: Confederate battle flag had no business being in Barnardsville’s 4th of July parade”

  1. It should be noted that the American flag also became a symbol of hatred to a great many under Donald Trump when he continually/falsely referred to true patriots as ‘sons of bitches’ for kneeling peacefully in attempts to begin meaningful discussions to end the divide.

  2. Yes, it’s hateful and all the things John Boyle talks about here, but we do have a First Amendment in this country and it protects speech in this country, and that extends to deplorable speech.

    1. Its about time we follow Germany’s view of free speech, where symbols of hate and hate speech are like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Its time they placed the confederate flag along with the swastika in the dust bin of history.

      America’s social chaos springs directly from our deification of the first amendment, which tolerates any and all evil.

      Most of Europe is usually more progressive than America and its time we move forward instead of yearning for a dead past.

    1. To me the flag represents southern pride and heritage. I have, still do, and always will believe that.

  3. I was born and raised in the heart of the South. I was in First Grade when the public schools were integrated. I can say without hesitation that (what we know as) the confederate flag is a symbol of racism.
    I don’t think it was intended to be. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any confederate soldiers in South or North Carolina would even recognize the flag.
    Also, growing up in the south there are many reminders of the slash and burn tactics of the North. Everywhere there is evidence of burns cities, defiling of National Monuments and many stories of rape, mass murder and evil by the Northern Armies.
    One question. Why are the war crimes of the North never mentioned?
    Why do I ask?
    The confederate flag as far as I can tell was never used in any battle in the south except maybe in one area. There are thousands of pictures of the Civil War. And I have yet to find one picture of the flag BEFORE the end of the war. Not one picture of the flag on a uniform, on a pole or any group photo (before the End of the war). However, there are many photos of the flag after the war. Mostly to commemorate the many fallen soldiers.
    Since then, the flag has definitely taken on New Meaning. It’s a Symbol of Racism!

  4. Very well written John Boyle. I could reflect quite a bit here as I grew up in “Jim Crow.” S.C. Powers that be were very skilled in perpetuating the supremacist narrative.

  5. This is column it’s just one a holes opinion. Who knows absolutely nothing about the true history of the Battle flag and what it represents. I’m a descendant of many men who fought under the battle flag and as far as my research goes none of them ever on a single slave. So you keep your opinion and I’ll keep mine but don’t try to tell me what I am supposed to believe.

    1. The articles of war for each confederate state explicitly announced the need to keep slavery legal as a driver of the confederacy war effort.

  6. Others may have already pointed out that the CSA vice president was ALEXANDER Stephens, not Andrew. I know that much, and I am an old Yankee (in the real sense of the term).

  7. As a yankee who moved here from NY 17 yrs ago, I would never tell my wonderful southern neighbors what they can and can not do. I think people who move here should expect to see that flag and should stop imposing their views on folks who have lived here for generations. If you do not want to see it, pick a nice northern location to move too.

  8. I believe it should be there. If it wasn’t for our past history, what would of became ? A blank understanding all the past. How can anyone believe our history is unimportant, to where we are now. Children will be uninformed of the whole history of our states!!! In my opinion .

    1. Personally I never owned a slave. And you never was a slave. So why try to erase history. Changing the names of school and taking down monuments is just plan crazy. Then you will still find something to fuss about. Just leave it alone

  9. It’s beyond confounding to grasp why so many southern Americans (and ones without any Civil War era heritage for that matter) embrace the Confederacy. They have no direct connection to any of the events by generations, and yet they’re stalwart believers. Hmm. Conclusion: hate and bigotry are taught. Stop teaching it!

  10. This is a big controversy in Salisbury, near where I live. They had to move the Confederate monument away from a prominent location. And in a nearby town called Faith where the 4th of July celebration is so big President George Bush Sr. attended once, the flag still flies and people complain about it. Those people were told in a letter to the editor essentially that if they don’t like the flag, don’t go to the parade. The person said it was his right to fly it.

  11. And next 4th of july folks, we will be complaining about the American flag. After all, it is a very scary piece of cloth.

  12. Personally, If my neighbors want to fly a flag from the losing side of a war held over 150 yrs ago, I guess that is their perogative. i honestly never give it a second thought guys.

  13. The South was invaded in 1861. The invader cared nothing for slaves.

    Any people have a right to their own self defense.

  14. John,
    I wish you had expanded on Strom Thurmon’s legacy of having a bi-racial child while serving as a white senator from the South. And then explain how our ancestors have the DNA of Neanderthals. We are Homo sapiens and all of our bigotry comes from the tribe we identify with. I’m Scottish with an unexplained percentage of someone from the North Congo. I think I have actually have hybrid vigor, which is a term biologists use for describing genetic mixtures that help them survive. I thank my ancestors for surviving, so I could be here, laughing my head off.

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