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One less Confederate flag on display

In response to my post-Charlottesville column on the Confederate flag — the one that asked those who display it to consider ending the practice — I received a couple of angry responses from fellow Americans who thought I was calling for a ban of the flag. I advocated no such thing, despite the appeal of that idea.

Another fellow, from a Baltimore suburb, said the column reminded him to go out and buy a new copy of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Other letters were rambling, Trumpian screeds.

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And then there was a well-written and coherent one, from a fellow who said the column had convinced him that, after displaying the flag on the bumpers of his various pickup trucks over the last 40 years, it was time to end the practice.

I wanted to talk to that guy, and we did, by phone. His name is Steve, he lives out West and he recently retired from a long career as an officer in the military.

After a good conversation about his decision to stop displaying the flag on his truck, I told him I wanted to share his comments with my readers. After thinking about that for a couple of days, he asked that I not give away his identity. He said he was worried about ramifications from admitting that he'd been driving around with the Confederate flag on display since the 1970s.

I agreed not to use his name in exchange for permission to quote from his letters and to share some of what he said during our phone call. So, here we are.

Steve insisted that he displayed the Confederate flag, starting as a college student in Virginia, to honor ancestors: Two relatives from Georgia, on his mother's side of the family, had died during the Civil War, one in combat, the other from disease. His display of the Confederate flag was about "heritage not hate."

"I can't think of a time when I didn't have the sticker on my truck," he said. "I never intended harm or promoted hate."

Over the years, as he drove around with a Confederate flag sticker, he never took any grief for it. Of course, a bumper sticker is not as in-your-face as a flag, and for much of his military career Steve had been assigned to bases in the South. That likely made a difference.

"Some might have been offended, some might have thought I was racist," he said, "but they never said anything to me about it." And that included his superiors.

I was skeptical that my column, which included an open letter to people who display the battle flag of Robert E. Lee's army (or a likeness of it), had convinced Steve to give it up. Had he not realized the flag was associated with hate and racism before now?

"When the Dylann Roof shooting occurred, it did approach my consciousness to stop using it," he said, referring to the killing of nine African-Americans by a 21-year-old white supremacist during a prayer service at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Following his arrest, photographs of Roof with a Confederate flag and handgun were published widely. Prominent political leaders called for removal of the flag from public spaces. The South Carolina legislature voted to remove the flag from outside the State House in Columbia. Major retailers announced that their stores would no longer sell the flag.

But Steve kept his bumper sticker — until he read my Aug. 15 column, with the open letter that described the Confederate flag as unpatriotic, a tribute to a cause that, if successful, would have changed the country forever, and not in a good way.

"Thank you for explaining current public perception, recent history and current events in a calm, logical voice," Steve wrote. "I now understand, I can no longer deny, that the flag I used to honor deceased soldiers and family is now completely and permanently viewed only as a symbol of hate."

His main concern: Remembering those who died in gray during the Civil War.

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"I hope you consider the logic that it is appropriate to maintain Confederate cemeteries and statues that honor the common Confederate soldier," he wrote. "Their elected state governments opted for secession. In 1861, allegiance to the state was often greater than allegiance to the United States."

No one should desecrate graves or graveyards. Public monuments to Confederate leaders are different. They honor men who chose to rip the country apart in an effort to preserve slavery.

But back to the Confederate flag: Reasonable people who care about the future of this country — where we go from here, after Charlottesville — should consider doing what Steve did, starting with thinking about all this. Displaying the Confederate flag not only praises a lost cause, it expresses defiance of the nation's changing demographics and hatred of the remarkably diverse nation we've become.

I say take it down.

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