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As even Southern Republicans retreat from the Confederate flag, and as the inevitable counter-reaction begins, I’m reminded of a battle over the battle flag almost 40 years ago.

It was in 1977, the first year of Governor Hunt’s first term. One fine spring day, as we arrived at the Capitol in Raleigh, we were startled to see the now-infamous banner flying over the dome in place of the American flag.

In turns out it was Confederate Memorial Day, and flying the flag was the practice on that occasion.

Even today, there is something viscerally startling about the Confederate flag’s very appearance. It was even more so then, not far removed from the bitter battles of the 1960s.

Maybe the flag means history and heritage to some people. But when those of us raised in the South see it, we see civil rights activists being beaten, governors standing in schoolhouse doors and Ku Klux Klansmen marching down the street.

Nobody was more struck than Ben Ruffin, Governor Hunt’s minority-affairs assistant. He looked like he was going to have a stroke on the spot.

The Governor was travelling that day and not immediately reachable. So several staffers went in to talk with Joe Pell, the Governor’s senior adviser. Joe was a direct, no-nonsense man of immense common sense and decency.

When we told him about the situation – and after Ben expressed his feelings – Joe said simply, “Tell them to take it down.”

The Capitol staff did so.

Then Thad Eure, the long-time Secretary of State who had an office in the Capitol, erupted: “The Confederate flag has flown over the Capitol every Confederate Memorial Day, and it must not come down.”

(As a sidelight, Rob Christensen wrote last week about how Eure liked to wave the Confederate flag at Carolina football games – and authored the infamous Speaker Ban Law.)

Somehow, Joe Pell calmed Eure down, and the flag stayed down. Then came the inevitable protests from pro-flag partisans who accused us of desecrating the Confederate dead.

Eventually, a compromise was reached under which the battle flag was replaced by the national flag of the Confederacy, the so-called Stars and Bars. Now there’s controversy over that.

As for the flag, President Obama summed it up during his remarkable speech in Charleston last week, which is worth watching in full: “It’s true a flag did not cause these murders, but as people from all walks of life — Republicans and Democrats — now acknowledge… the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag is a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.”

 

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