Lose the Confederate Flag or Lose Funding: Ultimatum Given to One Fire Department
By Bruce Henderson
Commissioners in Montgomery County say they will restrict funding to a rural volunteer fire department that for months has refused to take down the Confederate flag that waves over it.
Debate over the Uwharrie Volunteer Fire Department's flag has simmered for months but complaints about it go back years, according to news accounts. The department, organized as a nonprofit corporation in 1983, occupies a privately-owned building but gets county money.
County commissioners had previously asked the department to remove the flag. This week they delivered an ultimatum.
Commissioners said by letter they would limit the fire department's funding until it removes the flag, paying only for fuel and maintenance of the two county-owned trucks that firefighters operate. The county will also replace the Uwharrie name on the trucks with new graphics "in support of the county's stance on equal rights and freedom of speech."
Confederate flags have for years divided Southerners who view them as historic reminders of sacrifices suffered during the Civil War or in-your-face symbols of racism. Some of the hundreds of Confederate monuments in public places have been vandalized and ignited violence in August that left one person dead and dozens hurt in a clash in Charlottesville, Va.
Largely rural Montgomery County, whose county seat is about 50 miles east of Charlotte, is known for the low Uwharrie Mountains and 50,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest. About 27,000 people, 18 percent of them black, live there, census data shows.
Uwharrie fire officials couldn't be reached. The department has said it relies heavily on donations from a community that supports the flags.
"We feel that we would not continue to receive the financial support needed to meet our expenses if we remove our flags," the department wrote, the Montgomery Herald reported. "In our opinion, the protection of life and property outweighs the few people that choose to be offended and have a perverted view of a symbol that is part of our community's history and heritage."
County commissioners asked firefighters in July to take down the flag, Asheboro's Courier-Tribune reported, a proposal the department cited the First Amendment in rejecting. Pressure on commissioners continued, with county and district Democrats passing resolutions against the flag.
"Years have gone by, and it's time to take action," said county resident Harvest Little, a member of a community group that had planned a rally Saturday to push for the flag's removal. "This flag is tantamount to the monuments to the old South. It's not only offensive to African Americans but to all people who see themselves as Americans."
In their letter this week, commissioners sought a stern middle ground between the warring sides.
"The lesson that needs to be learned from this episode are that the county has a long way to go with education, that responsibility does not begin and end as a function of government, and that if anyone wants to hearken back to a period of respect then the best course to that end is to start practicing it today with all of your fellow Montgomery County residents," it read.
Commissioners renewed their offer to replace the flag with a historical heritage marker, a proposal the fire department had rejected.
Comments on the fire department's Facebook page largely support its flag.
"Nice to see there is still a little bit of America left in America," one commenter wrote.
"I think that the Confederate Flag should be proudly flown, as it is a part of history and people seem to forget that!!" added another. "They want to take away everything that is symbolic of our history and blame it on what they believe it to mean. Here's a wake up call -- if you don't know what the Confederate Flag stands for or what it's History truly is -- please read up on it before you pass judgment!!!!"
(c)2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)