Tombstone, formed 13 years after the Civil War ended, opened its city streets to a parade of Confederate flags in the first week of March, bringing criticism that racism is alive and well in town.
Much to the chagrin of local African-Americans and advocacy organizations, nearly 20 Confederate enthusiasts took to the streets, stars and bars raised high, shouting “Glory to the Confederacy!”
And yet, despite the potential controversy this parade posed, Tombstone officials unanimously approved the parade.
“It was brought before the council, and under the First Amendment, we couldn’t refuse them,” said Dusty Escapule, mayor of Tombstone. “And to be honest, there are a lot of people that fly the Confederate flag in Tombstone. I feel like it’s their First Amendment right to display the flag if that’s what they want to do. I personally wouldn’t display the flag. I wouldn’t do a lot of things these people do neither. It doesn’t make it right or wrong.”
Although the City Council claims the decision was made in an effort to preserve the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights, the argument isn’t entirely airtight. Under the law, the City of Tombstone, as a branch of public government, is allowed to reject any public demonstration proposals without violating the First Amendment.
“We’re not racists, and we’re not a Confederate city,” Escapule said. “We’re just an American city that recognizes and honors the First and Second Amendments.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, organizers of the parade, claim the Confederate flag has everything to do with celebrating heritage. The parade was held in conjunction to a series of parades held nationwide in the first weeks of March, all of which were geared toward honoring and celebrating the history of the Confederacy.
As a self-proclaimed historical society, the SCV alleges to denounce “any and all groups whose objective is to promote hate and discrimination.” Of the six Cochise County chapters of SCV that marched through Tombstone, all claim that the celebration of the Confederacy and the Confederate flag is exclusively about honoring their ancestors.
“This has nothing to do with race,” said Curtis Tipton, camp adjutant and member of Sierra Vista SCV Camp 1710. “We are not advocating for racism or secession. We are into preserving the heritage of our ancestors.”
With nearly 700 camps worldwide, the SCV has international reach as far as Australia and Germany. Much of what the society does includes preservation efforts of confederate symbols, which includes graves, flags and landmarks.
“This is about heritage,” said Bill Long, division lieutenant commander and member of Safford SCV Camp 2096. “We recognize the heritage of the flag and that’s it. Every member here has a family member that served in the war between the states, there’s no shame in honoring that.”
And while the SCV publicly and adamantly denounces hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood, their celebration of confederate symbols remains troublesome to others. For Katt McKinney, a community organizer for Black Lives Matter Phoenix, the flag is a symbol of hate.
“The confederate flag is a divisive symbol,” McKinney said. “[It] represents a different America — a painful past. It’s not something to be praised. For many, the flag is a hurtful, hateful symbol. To black people, the flag represents slavery. To see a bunch of white men say this is about freedom of speech and heritage … that’s just hurtful.”
For McKinney and others within Black Lives Matter, the Tombstone-condoned celebration of the Confederacy is an abuse of public power.
“You don’t get to come up with your own definition for stuff like this,” McKinney said. “You have to look at society as a whole and determine whether or not publicly celebrating a symbol like this is a positive idea.”
For Anthony Isom, president of the Greater Huachuca Area’s NAACP chapter, it’s important to strike a balance between First Amendment rights and cultural sensitivity.
“As an African-American man, I can’t dismiss the fact that the confederacy supported slavery,” Isom said. “But at the end of the day, the confederate flag means a lot of stuff to a lot of different people, and it’s not always bad. I’m not trying to condone people that support the Confederacy, but when I see that flag I can’t help but attach certain judgments to them.”
Although Isom believes the history associated with the Confederacy should be preserved, he does not believe it should be exalted. Similarly, Isom holds that it is the right of the individual and not a government organization to celebrate and promote such powerful and politically charged symbols.
“I don’t support what the flag stands for, but I do support the First Amendment,” Isom said. “An individual has the right to choose whether or not they want to celebrate the Confederacy. People have long and deep histories with the South, and I don’t knock that.”
Cochise County’s population is comprised of only 4.6 percent African- Americans, according to 2016 U.S. Census info. Similarly, no public offices are held by people of color in the county. That doesn’t worry Escapule.
“We still have a number of people of color that come to Tombstone,” the mayor said. “Things like this parade won’t effect that.
“And, as a matter of fact, we have Buffalo Soldier Days coming up, and people of color come to Tombstone from all across the country. We’re trying to attract all Americans to Tombstone to see what our historical town is all about, regardless of their race.”
Elise McClain is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for high-resolution photos and a Word version of the story.