Robert E. Walters, VA’s interim undersecretary for memorial affairs, announced that policy in a letter to Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, and other House members. Huffman had sponsored legislation that essentially would have required VA to do what it did.
The policy will continue to allow small Confederate flags on individual graves on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day, which has varying dates among states that celebrate it. The flags also will be allowed during graveside committal services.
But the offensive sight of the familiar Northern Virginia Battle Flag, the Stars and Bars or other rebel pennants flying high above the graves of American soldiers will soon be gone. That’s appropriate, since the Union troops fought to preserve the nation, unlike the traitors who would have broken it in defense of slavery.
Calls to get reaction to the policy from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans were not returned.
Walters, in a phone interview, said he expects the policy, which he called a clarification, to take effect within the first half of fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. Of 135 national VA cemeteries, the 29 with Confederate dead will be affected.
Huffman praised VA’s action, even while looking forward to the elimination of all Confederate flags from the cemeteries.
“This month we have seen the Confederate battle flag sold and displayed at Donald Trump rallies and proudly unfurled at a so-called ‘White Lives Matter’ protest,” Huffman said in a statement. “While racist individuals and groups continue to embrace the Confederate battle flag, it has never been more clear that this anachronistic symbol of hatred, slavery, and insurrection should not be promoted or gratuitously displayed on federal property.”
Currently, there are no size limits on the small flags that will be allowed on gravesites. “We are working on the specifics of that policy,” Walters said. Huffman is trying to determine whether there are any other parts of the federal government that allow Confederate flags to fly.
The National Park Service initiated a policy last year for its cemeteries that is similar to VA’s. In response to the June 2015 slayings of nine black worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis issued a memo the following week asking park store operators to “voluntarily withdraw items that solely depict a Confederate flag as a stand-alone feature, especially items that are wearable and displayable.” Dylann Roof, the accused killer, was photographed holding a Confederate flag and burning an American flag.
Huffman’s legislation, an amendment to a larger VA military construction appropriations bill, passed the House with a strong 265-to-159 bipartisan vote in May. Yet the measure was mysteriously removed from the bill during a conference committee with House and Senate members. No one informed Huffman in advance. “I read about it after the fact,” he said. He still doesn’t know who stripped his amendment or why.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who led the House conferees, should know. Rogers spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said “the provision was removed to ensure passage of the bill, to maintain critical funding for the Nation’s troops, military families, and veterans care,” while providing no information on who did the deed. Note — Rogers voted against Huffman’s amendment. The larger bill remains stuck in Congress, hostage to the Zika funding debate.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), an original co-sponsor of Huffman’s amendment, also doesn’t know who did it in. But he’s happy with VA’s action, even as he, too, would like even the small flags banned.
Confederate flags, of any size, Ellison said, symbolize “racial hierarchy with blacks on the bottom.” Walters mentioned that in his letter when he said the flags “are perceived by many as a symbol of racial intolerance.”
But the problem goes beyond Walters’s cautious acknowledgment. Ellison made it plain.
“This is a flag of treason,” he said. “The people who raised that flag, they took up arms against the United States.”
They weren’t tried for treason, however, but they certainly fit the constitutional definition of the crime: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
“This flag is a flag of treason and of racism,” Ellison added. “No matter what background you come from, no matter what color you are, that flag should be a deeply offensive signal.”
It is. That’s why VA and the Park Service acted, finally.