Some Wichita council members hope for local flag discussion

The flag of the Confederate States of America flies with other historical flags at the Veterans Memorial Park in Wichita. (June 23, 2015)
The flag of the Confederate States of America flies with other historical flags at the Veterans Memorial Park in Wichita. (June 23, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

At least two of Wichita’s seven City Council members said Wednesday they hope the council will discuss a Confederate flag that flies at the John S. Stevens Pavilion at Veterans Memorial Plaza near downtown.

“It is a sensitive issue; I think right now it is prudent to listen to everybody’s thoughts,” City Council member James Clendenin said. “Some people say it is part of history and we can’t get rid of it, while others are saying it is offensive for what it symbolizes.

“We are just going to have to take a deep look at this and make a decision that makes sense for everybody.”

Within the past week, the topic of Confederate flags on display has become a national discussion. In South Carolina, where nine black churchgoers were slain last week in what has been called a hate crime, lawmakers are debating removing a Confederate flag that flies on the Statehouse grounds. Meanwhile, Alabama’s Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday ordered four Confederate banners taken down near that state’s capitol.

On a more local level Wednesday, Clendenin, Mayor Jeff Longwell and council members Bryan Frye and Janet Miller said they each have received impassioned e-mails from constituents on both sides.

“I’ve received e-mails and have not been able to read them all,” Miller said.

City Council members Lavonta Williams and Jeff Blubaugh did not return phone calls to The Eagle on Wednesday. However, on Tuesday, Williams told The Eagle that “I think a lot of people don’t realize it is there. But as I look at it, I realize it is a very controversial topic.

“That flag is offensive to people who come to Wichita, especially African-American people from the South who understand and know what that flag means. I think we need to reach out to the stakeholders of that pavilion and make sure we can determine some changes, because it is offensive.”

Miller said what makes Wichita’s discussion different from those on the national level is that Wichita’s Confederate flag is not flying over a state or public building. It has been displayed with other historical flags in a pavilion in the veterans park for nearly four decades, creating an outdoor flag museum.

“I don’t have an opinion yet, but I am interested in everybody’s perspective,” Miller said. “I am always open to community discussion on any issue that is important to Wichita, and it sounds like this one may be.”

Frye said he is hopeful the council members can share what each have heard from their constituents.

“We need feedback,” Frye said. “I think we need to bring more people to the discussion to figure out what is the best course of action.”

Longwell said he believes the fate of the flag should be up to veterans who helped create the memorial in the plaza.

“I think you could make an argument that it should be the veterans who have fought and died for freedoms that should be making the decision,” Longwell said. “They should make the decision on whether it should fly or not fly. It is their decision to make, and we will respect what decision they do make.”

The Confederate flag was originally placed in the pavilion in 1976 as part of the nation’s bicentennial. At the time, 13 flags with historical significance were chosen for display by local teachers, politicians, city officials, veterans and residents.

Frye said he personally thinks of a white flag signifying surrender when it comes to the historical elements of the Confederacy.

“But this other flag seems to have the most impact,” Frye said. “It is the one we have here.”

City Council member Pete Meitzner said he had no comment.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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