Union Springs looks to put Confederate flag controversy to rest

Published: May. 16, 2015 at 3:11 AM CDT|Updated: May. 24, 2015 at 3:11 AM CDT
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(Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News)
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(Source: WSFA 12 News)

UNION SPRINGS, AL (WSFA) - Union Springs officials are taking measures to try to quell tension and debate surrounding incidents at a local graveyard that have placed the small town in the national spotlight.

After news broke and made headlines across the country that Confederate flags had been removed from the graves of soldiers in Union Springs, another round of flags reappeared at the cemetery at the center of the controversy. Now, city leaders are looking for some "closure" in the midst of the firestorm of reaction.

A prominent attorney admitted to taking the flags, a move that's sparked positive feedback as well as calls for him to be arrested and disbarred. He's also received death threats and hate mail.

The lawyer says his actions were meant to promote unity.

He put the small Confederate flags in a bag and left them at Union Springs City Hall. They were removed from graves at an old city cemetery downtown, behind the Red Door Theater, near the intersection of Highway 82 and North Prairie Street. Locally known as the "Confederate cemetery," it includes tombstones of nearly two dozen Confederate soldiers.

Myron Penn pulled up the flags with his family on Mother's Day. Penn, a founding partner at Penn & Seaborn Attorneys at Law in Union Springs, who served as state senator for two terms and as chairman of the Bullock County Commission, says he did it for his four-year-old son.

“The reason why we picked them up is because the image of the flags in our community, a lot of people feel that they're a symbol of divisiveness and oppression of many people in our community,” Penn said. “Especially with the history that that flag and the connotation and negativism that it brings. I would think that no one in our community would have a problem with this or with my actions at all.”

While some support what Penn did, others are outraged. The story has spread on social media.

“I just thought it was great when he did that. He said that he came up there with his little boy and I thought it was absolutely great,” said Tchernavia Blackmon, a Union Springs resident. “He did the right thing. I wish I had been out there to help him pick up the flags. He did a great job.”

“It's not about race or the flag or anything else. It's about decency and respect for the dead. You don't do stuff like that,” added Rebecca Atkins, who has family members who were Confederate soldiers. “You got to give respect where it's deserved and those soldiers gave their lives just like any other soldier gives their lives. It's nothing racial and it's not about discrimination. You look at the person who served for our country and that's what matters.”

Others say it was criminal, citing Alabama Code 13A-7-23.1 which states that it's against the law to “willfully and wrongfully or maliciously destroy, remove, cut, break, or injure any tree, shrub, plant, flower, decoration, or other real or personal property within any cemetery or graveyard.”

Penn responded to the backlash and says no laws were broken since he left the items at City Hall for anyone to claim and pick up. He says the city typically removes the flags after Confederate Memorial Day anyway.

“I invite anyone to say how I've broken the law by removing the flags,” Penn said. “They're making my point with the ugly comments and the meanness. It's exactly why those flags shouldn't be there in our community because that's not what our community stands for. We want our community to grow. We want all of our people, especially our children to feel as though they're growing up in a community that is not divided. I would think that everyone here in Bullock County feels the same way.”

The Attorney General's Office said they could not speculate on whether a particular circumstance is a violation or not.

While the cemetery is inactive, it is city-owned and maintained so we turned to Union Springs officials for comment. Calls to the city attorney have not been returned.

The mayor, Saint T. Thomas Jr., says an outside group came into Union Springs to set the flags out at the cemetery and that they were in the wrong, not Penn.

"The flags were placed there by unknown individuals that had no contact with the city of Union Springs. By them not coming to us to put the flags there, then what law has he broken to remove them since they were not authorized to be put there in the first place," the mayor said. "The council can't support people doing what they want to do when they want to do it."

On Monday, several other small Confederate flags reappeared at the cemetery, placed at the graves of unknown soldiers.

At a city council meeting that night, the mayor told the council that the issue is plaguing the town and they need to get beyond it since it's "causing dissension."

"Either way you go, there's going to be some concern, there's going to be some flak but I have to make a decision for the betterment of this city," he said. "It's my responsibility to make sure that everything is going as decently as possible and have some order within this city. It's not fair for us to be fighting amongst each other about a flag that has some deep rooted meaning to different individuals."

The mayor is asking that anyone who placed the flags at the cemetery remove them by 6 p.m. Tuesday night. After that, the city will remove them. Some council members voiced concern and said they did not think that was the best decision but others thought it would help the city move on.

"It needs to go away. Union Springs is not like that and I don't want people to get the impression that Union Springs is like that," said city councilman Stan Cooks.

"People have strong feelings on both sides of the issue and families want to honor their relatives but we do need to be sensitive that people are offended by certain symbols and that one person's liberties end where another person's begin," added Union Springs resident Darlene McGaw.

While setting decorations out at a specific grave site does not require permission from the city, the mayor says placing them at graves cemetery-wide does require approval. He says originally, the first set of flags were set out for Confederate Memorial Day and he had asked city employees to remove them when the holiday had passed but his instructions were not followed.

"I have no problem with you putting your flag at your relative's cemetery but it has to be removed within a reasonable amount of time. But if you want to put flags on everybody's grave, I have a problem with that because there are family members that don't want that flag but on their loved one's grave because of what that flag represents. So I have to defend them as well," the mayor added.

Meanwhile, Myron Penn has no regrets. He hopes his actions and the dialogue they started continue to help improve race relations across the area.

“The action that I've taken to get the flags up would not be one that divides people. In fact, it's the opposite. It's one that would bring our community together to say this is our community, this is our town, this is Bullock County. We're one of inclusion. We don't want to hurt anybody. We don't want to remind anyone of an oppressive past. We want to move our community forward economically and socially,” Penn added. “I did this not just for my child, but for all the children and all the parents who would want to do the same kind of thing to make sure that they do not grow up in a community that does not appear to be divided.”

A representative of a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans says he's considering legal action.

A group called the Defenders of the Confederate Cross is planning a protest in Union Springs next month. It is scheduled to take place June 19-20.

The Defenders of the Confederate Cross released this statement:

"While we DO NOT CONDONE acts of violence against any one, this has nothing to do with race, slavery, or oppression. This has a lot to do with people walking on and disregarding Confederate heritage. In 1958 congress ruled confederate veterans are AMERICAN veterans and D.C.C. will see that they are treated as such. We will replace the flags that were illegally removed and keep a ever present eye on all Confederate Veterans graves!"

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