Walhalla city phone lines are taxed with calls about the removal of a Confederate flag from a memorial on state property in the city.
City manager Nancy Goehle said the calls started Tuesday, more than a year and a half after the flag was swapped for a state flag.
The flags were switched in summer 2015, around the time when state legislators were in the process of removing a Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds, said Luther Lyle, a local historian who maintains the Walhalla site with like-minded friends.
Lyle switched the flags and said the state flag is just as meaningful to descendants, such as himself, of Confederates. He said about a third of South Carolina Confederate fighters went to war under the Confederate battle flag, a third went under the state flag, and the rest fought under a variety of other flags.
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He said he couldn't remember if the Walhalla flag swap happened just before or just after the Capitol ground flag was removed in a deal that also saw state legislators amend the state's Heritage Act to specify that no state or local government property dedicated or named for historical events or people can be altered without the consent of two-thirds of the state Legislature.
There was no vote to change the Walhalla memorial, and that means the removal of the flag was against state law, said James Bessinger, chairman of the South Carolina Secessionist Party.
He said his organization has sent letters to the city and its leaders, demanding that the flag be restored.
Walhalla Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Crawford said the city has confirmed to Bessinger that it has received his letter, but no immediate action is planned because the property is state-owned, and the city orally agreed more than a decade ago to let Lyle and the Sons of Confederate Veterans handle the memorial maintenance.
She said council members could address the issue at a committee meeting next week or a full council meeting later in the month.
"I'm not sure why, all of the sudden, this is coming to light," Crawford said.
Bessinger said the removal of the flag was not recent, but had just been brought to the Charleston-based organization's attention.
"There were 25,000 men from our state who died fighting under that flag," he said. "It's not right to demonize them based on modern standards. This is cultural censorship."
Lyle said the Confederate battle flag was taken down because he had been concerned about someone defacing the monument in 2015. Similar monuments had been targets of graffiti at the time in Columbia and Charleston.
"Our men locally fought under the Palmetto flag. I thought that was appropriate," he said. "We couldn't afford $1,500 to clean up a monument if a radical vandalized it."
He said the Heritage Act allows for organizations that maintain monuments to take steps to preserve and protect the monuments.
Bessinger said the Heritage Act allows people to protect, but not change, historic memorials.
"It's not a memorial to soldiers, it's a memorial to Confederate soldiers," Bessinger said. "He can spin it as much as he wants to, but that's not how the law works."
Only one person had complained about the Confederate battle flag being taken down in 2015, Lyle said, but he has heard from several people this week who are upset with his decision.
"Nobody locally has said anything," Lyle said. "I'd like to talk to anyone who has an issue and ask them what their heritage is, because we're doing this to preserve our heritage."
A Confederate flag was recently flown again in a York County courtroom after having been removed.
Bessinger said the reversal in York County likely means the flag will come back to Walhalla. He said standing up for the flag matters because removal of it could lead to removal of monuments and other historical markers.
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