What's up with that? Flag is nod to history, exemplar of free speech

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

I drive past "Jefferson Davis Park" every day on my way to work at Ridgefield High School, where I teach English. Each year, I teach the memoir "Warriors Don't Cry" by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the "Little Rock Nine" who were threatened by a lynch mob while trying to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.; she was injured when acid was thrown in her face.

I have trouble explaining to my students why there is a Confederate battle flag flying here. The Bonnie Blue flag, the flag of secession of the South from the Union, has been added under the stars and bars. I don't understand why these Confederate flags are being flown in Washington when the Civil War was not fought here, and Washington was not even a state at the time. I really think the "memorial" is a slap in the face to the United States and Washington.

— Anonymous

This is one of those questions that doesn't have the kind of black-and-white answer you're after, Anonymous.

Many people find the Confederate battle flag a hateful reminder of slavery, white supremacy and Jim Crow -- that is, forced racial segregation -- while others see it as a simple shout-out to Southerners who fought what they saw as invasion by the North. Either way, the bottom line is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects most controversial free speech.

This issue came to Clark County in 2008, when the Sons of Confederate Veterans (scvportland.org/ jdp_park.html), a fraternal organization with a branch in Portland, held a grand opening for that diminutive quarter-acre private park, just south of the Gee Creek Rest Area on I-5 southbound. As you point out, the park has routinely displayed an American flag alongside a Confederate battle flag. The Bonnie Blue is new. The spot used to have its own website, jeffersondavispark.org, but that doesn't seem to be maintained anymore.

What still is maintained is the assertion that the Confederate stars-and-bars doesn't really represent anything racist. "We are not still fighting that war, and we're not perpetuating any racial issues," Brent Jacobs, local spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has said. "We're just everyday folks who happen to have great-great-grandfolks who fought in that war. It's not political, it's heritage."

Six of Jacobs' ancestors fought for the Confederacy, he said, but none of them owned slaves; a farther-back ancestor "owned quite a few slaves" but would be considered an American hero nonetheless because he fought in the Revolutionary War. "It's all about perspective," he wrote in an email. "For those who do not have Confederate ancestors, they will never understand our pride … and I understand that."