Controversy erupts over Confederate flag at Austin Veterans Day parade

Every November for at least 15 years, a group called the Descendants of Confederate Veterans has participated in the local Veterans Day parade. Members wear Civil War-style uniforms and fly several flags from a truck trailer, including the American flag, the Texas flag — and the Confederate battle flag.

The group managed to elude controversy for years, but this week Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler are calling for the Confederate flag-flying tradition to end.

Adler, who plans to walk in the parade to show his support for veterans, issued a statement calling the Confederate battle flag “a political symbol of hatred and racism.” He added that the Confederate flag doesn’t fly at City Hall, and “as long as I’m mayor we never will.”

Both Travis County and the city of Austin are listed as sponsors or supporters of the parade, which is organized by a nonprofit group called the Veterans Day Parade Committee. While they could withdraw support, neither government has the ability to dictate who is allowed to participate in the parade.

This dispute comes during a year in which Confederate symbols across the South are being re-evaluated and removed. In July, South Carolina took down the Confederate flag on display at its Capitol after a racially motivated shooting at a church. In August, the University of Texas removed its statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and the Austin school district is still weighing what to do about the five schools with names or mascots linked to the Confederacy.

Eckhardt, who herself is a descendant of Confederate soldiers, led an effort to investigate Travis County’s involvement in the Veterans Day parade. The Commissioners Court declined Tuesday to take specific action, but a county employee who works on veterans affairs has resigned as chair of the parade committee. That was to allow the county to sever ties with the parade, Eckhardt explained.

“We don’t have control over the parade committee,” Eckhardt said, though she said she was surprised to learn the county had handled some administrative duties for the event over the years.

Adler spokesman Jason Stanford said he wasn’t aware of any efforts to end the city’s sponsorship of the event. Another city spokesperson said typically the city’s involvement includes waiving required fees for shutting down the streets.

Attempts to reach the parade committee were unsuccessful Wednesday. The parade’s website, which is on a Travis County domain, and its Facebook page direct visitors to Olie Pope, the Travis County veteran’s services officer who stepped down as chair of the parade committee Tuesday. Pope didn’t return a phone call or email from the Statesman.

The controversy first erupted months ago, when a member of the Veterans Day Parade Committee voiced objections to flying the flag, according to Terry Ayers, a spokesman for the Descendants of Confederate Veterans, a Texas-based nonprofit. Ayers declined to name that person but said the committee looked into it and chose to support allowing the Confederate battle flag to be used in the parade.

Ayers said his group flies the flag to recognize its historical importance and the sacrifices made by Texas veterans in the Civil War.

“We cannot forget what the flag meant to people like my great-grandfather, who did not own slaves,” Ayers said. “He was just a soldier who was called to defend the country that he belonged to.”

He said his group doesn’t deny that slavery was a motivation for the Civil War, but adds that it’s too simplistic to say the entire war was all about slavery. “It was so much deeper than that,” Ayers said.

Ayers noted that another group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, also carries the Confederate battle flag, among other flags, at the parade. The Sons of Confederate Veterans didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Eckhardt said she doesn’t believe groups like the Descendants of Confederate Veterans are racist.

“But I do believe the (flag) is a symbol that terrorizes the black community, and they are not irrational in finding that symbol offensive and fear-provoking,” Eckhardt said.

The Descendants of Confederate Veterans also flies the first national flag of the Confederate States, known as the “Stars and Bars.” A spokesman for Adler said this flag was more appropriate to use in the parade because it’s not as commonly affiliated with racism. But Eckhardt said any flag that represents the Confederate States of America is painful for African-Americans.

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