Signs of the South or symbols of oppression? Debate over Confederate flags, monuments intensifies

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. – The Confederate flag is light enough to fly freely in the Virginia breeze, but it carries a heavy emotional weight for some.

Protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have directly led to some Confederate monuments coming down, either by force or by legislative action. Organizations including NASCAR, the United States Marine Corps and the Franklin County School Board have all banned or restricted Confederate iconography in the past week.

Virginia Tech professor Dr. Wornie Reed believes Floyd’s death spurred people to remove symbols seen as dehumanizing black people, such as the Confederate flag.

“Think of waving a red flag at a bull. That’s what it’s like to wave any of these symbols in front on an African-American," said Dr. Reed.

However, some in Virginia do not see the harm in the flag. Marlin Friel moved to Rocky Mount from New York 30 years ago, and said she always equated the Confederate flag with Southern pride.

“It’s just a symbol,” Friel said. "It makes people feel at home, it makes people feel like its a part of their heritage. That’s all it is.”

A Confederate monument stands outside of the Franklin County Courthouse in Rocky Mount, Virginia. (Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

Reed said the controversy about Confederate iconography also takes into account when the flags and statues were erected. Reed says both elements did not gain popularity until after the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, which cleared the way for legal segregation.

“The main symbol of the Southern resistance to blacks being a part of this society is the Confederate battle flag," Reed said. “These symbols were put there to usher in Jim Crow."

Confederate flags and statues still stand tall in parts of Virginia, but a split remains in how Virginians see these symbols.

“I think it’s being politicized," Friel said. “I think people are using this to divide people.”