Honoring history does not mean condoning it: Former lawmaker Myron Penn’s actions were disrespectful

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There’s a weird trend emerging throughout the state in the past several months: Individuals have decided that their personal opinions towards history should trump tradition, facts and/or the law.

First, the portraits of Governors George and Lurleen Wallace were removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and placed in a lesser trafficked first-floor hallway.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler is trying to rectify that. “This was a wrong that needs to be righted,” Zeigler said at the River Region Republican March meeting in Montgomery. “We need to preserve our state’s heritage. These politically correct government officials want their own version of history instead of what actually happened.”

Now reports have surfaced in the last several days that former state Sen. and attorney Myron Penn and members of his family removed Confederate flags from a Union Springs Confederate cemetery.

In an interview with WSFA-TV he said, “The reason why we picked them up is because the image of the flags in our community, a lot of people feel that they’re a symbol of divisiveness and oppression of many people in our community,” he said. “Especially with the history that that flag and the connotation and negativism that it brings. I would think that no one in our community would have a problem with this or with my actions at all.”

Well, he’s wrong. While it appears as though those who placed the flags at the graves didn’t have proper permission, removing them is not an acceptable response. As a matter of fact it’s against the law. Side note: If I decide to go and put flowers on the graves of all the soldiers do I need permission? What about putting down American flags? I understand that the city owns the site but does that mean they own the rights to ones First Amendment rights when you walk into the site?

A grave site, especially the graves of soldiers is a place to honor the dead. The flags placed there were done in memory of the soldiers and a cause they clearly believed in. The timing is also relevant since it was close to Confederate Memorial Day. State laws in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia name the last Monday in April as a holiday for Confederate Memorial Day.

Penn was wrong but he was more than that. What he did appears to have broken the law.  Alabama law is clear, “(a) Any person who willfully or maliciously injures, defaces, removes or destroys any tomb, monument, gravestone or other memorial of the dead, or any fence or any inclosure about any tomb, monument, gravestone or memorial, or who willfully and wrongfully destroys, removes, cuts, breaks or injures any tree, shrub, plant, flower, decoration, or other real or personal property within any cemetery or graveyard shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.”

The fact is that our nation is rich in history: some good, some bad. The Confederate flag is a part of it and it represents much more than Penn and those who wish to rewrite history portray it. Despite being one of the nation’s most divisive emblems, experts have long noted the flag was never intended to be a symbol of racism and slavery. Including the Pulitzer Prize-winning James McPherson, the celebrated historian of American history and author of the classic “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” and “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.” In a Salon.com interview, he said the flag initially “was associated with Confederate heritage” until 60-70 years ago, after World War II in the late 1940s, when it became associated with racism. But he noted that, “in the minds of many it continues to be associated with Confederate heritage.”

There are many groups dedicated to honoring the history and heritage of the Confederate army and those who died in the civil war. Those include Defenders of the Confederate Cross and Sons of Confederate Veterans who both emphasize that the flag is a symbol to honor the sacrifice of patriots who were willing to die to protect this country and make sure it remained as the founders intended, as well as the history of the south. Not racism.

Rather than remove the flag what Penn should have done is take the opportunity to talk to his son about history. He could have used it as an opportunity to reinforce the idea that history offers many lessons and that when presented with a slight real or perceived there are right and wrong ways to address them. Breaking the law and disrespecting history and heritage is not the right way.

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