In the small North Carolina town where I live, there has been heated discussion of flags in the past year — mostly about the Confederate flag.
Last August, about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest on the steps of our historic courthouse. Many came in traditional Klan garb — white robes and pointed hoods — and unfurled the flag of hate, also known as the Confederate flag. To make their point even more emphatic, two Klansmen carried a banner that read, “Loyal white knights. Yesterday, Today, Forever!”
Hillsborough is in Orange County, which also is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 2015, when the town’s commissioners voted to erase two words from our county history museum — “Confederate Memorial” — rebel flag-waving protesters have paid us several visits, always promulgating the historical lie that these are flags of “heritage, not hate” and not white supremacy or racism.
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Hate has no home here
Just before the July Fourth holiday a year ago, I had decided to hang the American flag — Stars and Stripes — from my front porch. At the time I remember thinking that I was making a soft statement — about inclusion, equality under the law and patriotism. Yes, patriotism — even though I’m not a red cap-wearing "Make America Great Again” follower.
My house overlooks our town’s Old Slave Cemetery, which long ago, according to town lore, had been vandalized by white supremacists, leaving a field of mostly unknown graves and a few broken grave markers.
I hoped my red, white and blue flag would embrace these Americans as the patriots they were — and are, even in death. I bought it at our local hardware store, mounted it on the house and then six weeks later the KKK came riding into to town.
At the Klan protest in August, many of my fellow Hillsboroughians stepped up in real time to the frightening display of white supremacy. “People dropped what they were doing — neighbors, shopkeepers, parents,” then-Mayor Tom Stevens told me. “They went to the courthouse to stand and be present and let the world know that the KKK, neo-Confederate, white supremacist message is just not going to be welcome here and it’s not part of our community.”
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And my neighbors did it in large part by displaying the American flag. They held it high, trying their best to obscure the Confederate flag of hate and the KKK’s banner of white supremacy. As if the message might not be clear enough, our town citizens channeled the flag’s symbolism into a short but powerful phrase: “Hate has no home here.”
Old Glory isn't partisan
For most of my life, I had ceded the flag and its symbolism to the Republicans. As a teen growing up in the 1970s, I never imagined the adult me displaying that flag. President Richard Nixon waved the flag to promote his law and order policies, not to mention the ongoing war in South East Asia. Still, at an anti-war march shortly after Nixon’s reelection, I watched the red, white and blue going up in flames — at the hands of the protesters — and I thought it wrong to desecrate the flag. I thought it even more untenable that our flag had become a hostage to one party.
These days Republicans — like President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — continue to hold the flag hostage. Republican supporters harangue Democrats for not wearing flag pins on their lapels (even when they do), or athletes like professional football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid for not displaying proper respect for flag and country when they knelt during the national anthem to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality.
In fact, 90% of Republicans, compared with 52% of Democrats, said in a Pew Research Center poll that displaying the American flag is very or somewhat important to what it means to be a good citizen.
Why should displaying the American flag be a partisan issue?
The answer is simple: It should not be. When I look at my flag as it flutters in the afternoon breeze, I can’t help but notice it casts a shadow toward the slave cemetery. My weather-resistant, 5-feet-by-7-feet flag, hanging from a metal pole with a bald eagle at its tip, is a daily salute to those Black Americans buried 6 feet under.
For those who walk by on this Fourth, I hope you’ll understand its message: “Hate has no home here.”
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books and host of "The Civilist" podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @StevenPetrow
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Independence Day: Republicans don't have a monopoly on American flag