MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Martinsburg City Council members have voted unanimously and without discussion to deny a request by the West Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to parade through downtown Martinsburg on March 5 to celebrate the 155th anniversary of the “birth” of the Confederate flag.
“It’s still going to happen – we’ll march on the sidewalks,” Paul Williams, commander of the West Virginia Division SCV, said after the council’s meeting on Thursday. “They passed an anti-discrimination ordinance tonight and the first thing they did was discriminate.”
Williams was referring to the City Council’s unanimous vote Thursday to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its list of protected groups in its Human Rights Act.
The SCV wanted to form on the square in downtown Martinsburg. The group requested that Queen Street be blocked off while they marched to Race Street, and for the first block of East Race Street to be blocked off while speeches and activities were conducted in front of the Belle Boyd House. The event was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. and conclude at noon. Williams said he expected between 100 and 300 people to attend the event.
The SCV requested to use the Belle Boyd House property, which is home to the Berkeley County Historical Society, the Berkeley County museum and the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Berkeley County Historical Society, which owns the Belle Boyd House property, denied the SCV’s request to use the property, Scott Funkhouser, president of the BCHS, said Thursday before the council meeting.
“The Berkeley County Historical Society encourages all individuals and groups who have an interest in the history of Berkeley County,” he said. “However, we are not affiliated in any way with any group on a singular basis. The BCHS takes great pride in Berkeley County history inclusively without endorsing any event. They requested permission to come onto the property and it was denied, because it would conflict with the hours of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.”
“It will be a celebration of Southern heritage and the Confederate flag,” Paul Williams said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “We will be celebrating all Confederate flags, including the battle flag.”
The iconic Confederate battle flag – white stars in a dark blue St. Andrew’s Cross on a red background – has been at the center of recent controversies arising from the tragic shooting deaths of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year by 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who had posed with the rectangular battle flag, avowing his white supremacist views.
After the shooting, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of a replica of an authentic square battle flag from the a monument on the grounds of the South Carolina state capital, because it represented slavery and was offensive to the state’s residents, especially blacks.
The South Carolina Legislature overwhelmingly voted to remove the flag, and on July 10, 2015, the flag was taken down.
This caused a backlash among supporters of the Southern cause, such as Ben Jones, who played Cooter on the television show Dukes of Hazard and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia from 1989-93.
“Everytime they take one down, we’ll put 10 of them up,” Jones wrote in a famous Facebook posting.
Williams said the SCV took direction from Jones’ posting, organizing the upcoming celebration. This would be the first flag commemoration, but it is hoped it becomes an annual event, he said. Events are scheduled throughout the South, he said.
A handful of people spoke against the SCV’s request during the public comment of the council meeting.
“I believe in the 1st Amendment, but advocating violence is not protected speech,” Kris Loken of Falling Waters told the council members. “The flag represents rape, murder, enslavement, abuse. Do they associate with hate groups like the KKK or skinheads? Will they allow hate groups to join in the parade? Will there be hate speech? There is a danger to incite violence, and I ask you to delay this vote until those questions can be answered and city residents can comment on their request.”
Williams and other SCV members at the meeting were not given the chance to speak about their request when it came up for a vote, although Williams said he was told he would get a chance to speak when the item came up on the agenda.
“They were talking about inciting riots – we want to get the public involved to prevent such actions,” Richard Bushong, a member of the local SCV group. “We would absolutely not allow those kinds of groups to participate. We’d go to court to stop them.”
“We’d throw them out ourselves,” Williams said.
“This is a great time to bring people together, to educate people,” Bushong said. “I think the City Council was derelict in their duty. They did not get any information about the event.”
Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128, or twitter.com/jmcveyJN.