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Grace Mattern: Confederate flags don’t belong at New Hampshire fairs



For the Monitor
Sunday, September 03, 2017

Fair season is under way in New Hampshire. For many families that means watching horse and tractor pulls, strolling past exhibits of vegetables and needle work, eating fried dough, and walking through barns to admire prize cows, sheep, pigs and goats.

That was what a woman who attended the Cheshire County Fair earlier this summer anticipated, a pleasant Friday evening with her young son. When she came to a booth selling Confederate flags she was disturbed, understanding its use as a symbol of hatred toward black people. How could she explain that to her son?

After her efforts to get the fair to remove the flags failed, she sent photos to Black Lives Matter N.H., which posted them on Facebook. The post was shared more than 200 times and the office of the fair received dozens of calls from more people upset by the flags; phone lines were tied up for hours.

Confederate symbols invoke strong feelings for many Americans. If that wasn’t evident before, it is now after the “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the KKK came together to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. Many of them carried Confederate flags as they marched through the streets and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

Use of the flag is defended as a symbol of Southern regional pride and to honor Confederate soldiers who died fighting for a cause they believed in. That defense ignores history.

The banner we currently identify as the Confederate flag was actually the battle flag of the Northern Virginia Army. It was never used by the Confederate Congress or flown over any state capitols during the Confederacy. After the Civil War, the flag was rarely used for any purpose.

The Confederate flag made its reappearance in the middle of the 20th century, as a direct counter to the growing civil rights movement. The KKK resurrected the flag to push back against desegregation and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. The Dixiecrats, a political party formed in 1948 to protest the pro-civil rights platform adopted by the Democratic Party, carried the flag. It was used as an intentional symbol of a time when white people were considered superior to black people in the laws, customs and institutions of the South.

The history of the flag belies the assertion that it stands for Southern heritage and doesn’t imply an embrace of racist attitudes. It does. Efforts to ban the display of the Confederate flag over the last two decades were furthered in 2015 after the racially motivated murder of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot the church members, displayed the flag prominently on his website.

In response the South Carolina Legislature voted to take down the Confederate flag over the State House. Retailers including Wal-Mart, Amazon and Sears announced they would no longer sell items bearing the flag and the four largest flag manufacturers in the country stopped making Confederate flags. NASCAR racetracks issued a joint statement asking fans to discontinue displaying the flag.

So why are Confederate flags sold at agricultural fairs in New Hampshire? Until recently, it hasn’t been an issue, mostly because it hasn’t been noticed. It’s time to notice and recognize what the flag represents.

After the controversy at the Cheshire County Fair, Mark Florenz, treasurer of the fair association, said the board would be discussing how to handle the sale of Confederate flags going forward. “I don’t know what the result will be,” he said. “But there’s more to come.”

The outcome of the discussion is uncertain; one board member said people looking for a reason to complain blew the issue of the flags out of proportion,

The Deerfield Fair faced a related problem last year. After receiving complaints about a vendor selling insultingly characterized black figurines, fair officials asked the vendor to remove the items. When the vendor refused, fair officials shut down the booth. However, Confederate flags were still sold.

This year the Deerfield Fair Association took a bigger step. Last week they voted to ban the sale of any Confederate flag merchandise.

Richard Pitman, the vice president of the fair association, said, “We’re a family fair and we want all families to feel welcome here.”

What will other fairs do? Given the racist history of Confederate flags, it’s easy to make a case that they have no place at New Hampshire’s agricultural fairs. Requests for information from the Hopkinton and Sandwich fairs about policies related to the sale of Confederate flags elicited no response. Perhaps the action of the Deerfield Fair Association will serve as a model for other fairs, including Cheshire County.

Fairs are nonprofits directed by associations made up of community members. They listen to their neighbors. Let them know that Confederate flags have no place at agricultural fairs in New Hampshire.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She blogs at gracemattern.com.)