Around a dozen members of veterans groups, mostly Vietnam veterans, in west Kentucky gathered on the plaza opposite of Paducah City Hall on Friday to protest the city's ban on certain flags in the Veterans Day parade and called for a boycott. They also burned a version of the Confederate flag they called a "hate flag."
The City of Paducah and Veterans Day Committee passed resolutions earlier this year limiting participation to groups representing the United States.
The veterans groups contend this is targeted to the Sons of Confederate Veterans who have marched in past parades. Michael Swinford is a Vietnam veteran with Confederate ancestors. He said free assembly and free speech rights allow him to carry any flag he wants.
"The problem being is they specifically wrote the resolution to keep the Sons of Confederate Veterans out of the parade where they have been for five years, they have marched. But this year, with the new mayor, she has decided that she knows best,” Swinford said.
Swinford said the resolution is “immoral, illegal, improper and impetuous.” He said legal action is being planned through local attorneys and the ACLU. "If they can take away your flag then they can take away your Bible and we're not going to go down that slippery slope,” he said.
“A lot of people have chips on their shoulder today,” Swinford said. “And they feel like they’ve been mistreated because great, great, great, great grandfather was a Confederate soldier. We didn’t choose our ancestors. We don’t know what went on back then. And we want to move forward, but we have to remember our past. And there’s been a lot of bloodshed for the right to assemble and the right to free speech. We’re here today to exercise that right.” He said an uncle fought in the Confederate Army in Alabama and died in the Battle of Vicksburg.
Swinford said the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not a “hate group” and abhor the Ku Klux Klan, Antifa and other groups. “We have nothing to do with them… we don’t hate anyone,” he said. He noted that the group could do a better job with public relations. “We don’t choose color when we make a decision to honor somebody. We don’t look and say ‘that’s a black person or a brown person or a white person.’ Is it a deserving person? Does that person deserve that honor? And if that person deserves that honor then we’re going to go ahead and follow through and honor that person.”
Following Charlottesville, the city commissioners issued a statement condemning hatred and bigotry. White supremacist groups, some with Confederate flags, rallied earlier this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a counter protester. The rally began in support of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The group is calling on veterans to boycott the Veterans Day Parade on November 11.
The group defended the well-known Confederate battle flag, but used a lighter to burn the second national flag of the Confederacy, calling it a "hate flag" of white supremacists that "goes against our black loved ones" and "needs to be burned."
Sandy Hart is the curator of the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum in Wickliffe. Her great grandfather fought for the South and didn’t have slaves, same as her great, great grandfather. She said the flag (which is mostly white with St. Andrews Cross) was used by a minority of the south and represents white supremacy.
Confederate symbols have become subject to a considerable amount of national debate, as well as in Kentucky, with calls to remove the Jefferson Davis statue in the Capitol and Lexington taking action to move two statues. In Paducah, the Tilghman statue has garnered significant attention from groups both supporting and opposing its placement in Fountain Square. Last weekend, local African American pastors and the NAACP called for its removal.
Michael Swinford said he doubts if anyone really looks at the symbols since they have been there for decades. He said getting rid of Civil War memorabilia has become "the thing to do" across the country and "is just wrong." He added that he’d have ‘no problem’ if the statues and flags were put in a museum so long as it’s done so with respect. He pointed to the upkeep costs of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and suggested that money be used to move the Tilghman statue to the Tilghman House as well as pay for upgrades to the house.
Swinford said Paducah is not Charlottesville. “We are a peaceful, working-together type community. We have our disagreements, but we don’t yell and shout at each other. We work it out. We work out compromises, which I’m hoping we can do with the Commissioners.”
Hart said, “These guys served our countries, now gals, too. Put their lives on the line and now they’re going to be told what to do with their parade? No way.”
With regard to the idea of “coming together” to resolve issues, Hart said she often goes around speaking with groups and will talk about issues with anyone who invites her or who wants to come to the museum. “You will never be able to make everybody happy. You can open up the talks, the communication. That’s the only thing that’s going to heal this thing.”
The City Commission will likely address the issue at the Tuesday meeting.
Whether Confederate veterans are considered U.S. veterans has long been subject to debate and confusion. A U.S. Code is often referenced regarding governments paying for memorials or headstones for soldiers including Confederates. President Andrew Johnson in 1868 pardoned Confederate soldiers for treason and granted them amnesty, but did not specifically grant them U.S. veteran status. There was also a law in the 1950s for Confederate widows entitled to pensions and other cemetery rights. Congress authorized a portion of Arlington National Cemetery in 1900 a section set aside for Confederate burials.