Valley News Staff Writer
Kenny Rogers flies a Confederate flag in front of his apartment in White River Junction on Friday. The flag was a gift from his mother-in-law. Rogers said he doesn’t harbor racist feelings and does not personally see the flag as a symbol of oppression, but rather as a historical artifact and a symbol of free speech.Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson
Sam Smith, of White River Junction, was shocked last fall when he saw the Confederate flag flying in a yard on Latham Works Lane in White River Junction. “It’s a flag of intimidation and horror,” Smith said.
The Confederate flag flies beneath the American flag outside the home of Kenny Rogers in White River Junction, Sunday, March 6, 2016.(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
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Following a discussion about the Confederate flag flying outside the Rogers’ residence in White River Junction (seen above right) on Sunday, Simon Dennis, left, Bethany Fleishman, second from right, and Sam Smith, right, pause for some neutral conversation with Kenny Rogers, middle, his wife, Nichole, and her mother, Kay Tolbert. After about two hours of talk, Rogers was not persuaded to take down the flag. “I wish we all knew the true meaning of things before we bombard somebody,” Nichole Rogers said. Valley News — James M. Patterson
Tuesday, March 08, 2016
White River Junction — At the dead end of Latham Works Lane, a flagpole bears a rectangle of red cloth dominated by a big blue X and 13 white stars.
It’s the Confederate flag, a symbol of the Civil War-era American South that then became a symbol of the South’s resistance to civil rights .
On Thursday, disagreements about the meaning of the flag in the 21st century, and the right of an individual to display it, were heating up.
“The flag is basically a symbol of oppression, intimidation, hate, slavery,” said Sam Smith, a black resident of Hartford who works at the nearby Hotel Coolidge. “These guys lost the war. They were on the wrong side of history. They wanted us as slaves.”
The man who put the flag up has a different take on it.
“I believe everybody has a legal right to fly a flag,” said Kenny Rogers. “People are getting too excited about everything. I’m so tired with people telling everybody what to do. It’s just a piece of cloth.”
The flag’s level of visibility is open to debate. Latham Works Lane is in a low-lying neighborhood that is near White River Junction’s busy downtown but maintains its own identity — a handful of houses, a tire shop, a community garden and a water treatment plant are all pinched between the Connecticut River and a set of railroad tracks.
Smith worries that the flag can be seen by visitors entering Hartford by way of train, but Rogers says the passenger tracks are barely visible from his home, which draws little traffic.
Though Smith and Rogers live in the same small community, all either of them knew about the other was in relation to the flag — Smith only knew Rogers as the person who put the flag in his yard, while Rogers only knew Smith as the person who complained about it.
Soon, the two men were to be brought face-to-face by the very issue that had driven them apart.
Right to Be Offensive
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, said displays of the Confederate flag unnecessarily place two great American values in opposition to each other — diversity and freedom of speech.
Rogers’ display wasn’t violating any laws, said Gilbert.
“On private property, a person can usually put up anything they want,” he said. “It’s only illegal if it can lead to a situation where somebody is placed in immediate danger of serious physical injury.”
On the other hand, said Gilbert, displaying a symbol that is likely to make people of other races feel unwelcome is rarely a good idea.
“I think sometimes there are people that feel a need to do certain things most of us feel are not appropriate,” he said. “There’s a need they have to assert themselves in a certain way. I think ultimately it harms them more than anything else.”
Selectman Simon Dennis, who lives just a few houses down from Rogers on Latham Works Lane, said the town had not been asked to take a stance in the disagreement, and that even if it had, a municipality typically plays no role in discouraging an individual’s right to free speech.
Smith said he had appealed to various people in the community for help, but had not approached Rogers or the property owner, who according to town records, is Stephen Burnham; attempts to reach Burnham were unsuccessful.
History Old And New
Though the Civil War was 150 years ago, a recent event brought new heat to the smoldering debate over its use.
When asked about the flag, both Rogers and Smith referenced an event that happened last year, in a city more than a thousand miles away — Charleston, S.C.
Last June, authorities allege, a young man named Dylann Roof posted a racist manifesto online alongside photos of himself standing by a Confederate flag, shortly before entering a Charleston church and massacring nine black church members.
Smith, a mild-looking man who wears perpetual stubble and sunglasses, said it was a day of disgust and outrage.
“I just couldn’t understand. I was out of my head with all this,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think or what’s going on here. (Racism), like, sits there and it stews and brews. Their environment helps them to nurture it and they can’t get rid of it.”
The association between the flag and the mass shooting led to moves in several states to remove the flag from public lands.
Moves against the flag were also made in the private sector, as many flag makers, including Pennsylvania-based Valley Forge Flag, announced that they would no longer make the banner.
By the end of the month, the television channel TV Land had made the decision to pull episodes of the early ‘80s show T he Dukes of Hazzard, because the Southern-set show’s titular heroes make frequent use of a car painted with a Confederate flag on its roof.
The public debate also led to a sort of backlash — news agencies reported that retailers of Confederate flags reported sales spiking to as much as 500 times their pre-shooting numbers. The online retailing giant Amazon’s sales increased by 3,000 percent for a short period before it pulled the items from its offerings, according to a report from Business Insider.
Rogers was part of that backlash.
During an hourlong conversation in front of his home, with the flag he erected in view, Rogers, 45 with a nose ring and a long beard, talked about why he hoisted the flag.
He said he reacted to what he saw as a tidal wave of censorship rolling over the nation in the wake of the Charleston shooting.
Rogers didn’t like the idea of communities exercising that kind of pressure on individuals, and when he heard D ukes of Hazzard was being pulled from television schedules, it was a kind of breaking point for him.
“There’s nothing racist about The D ukes of Hazzard,” he said.
To him, it was a case of political correctness being taken too far.
That summer, he first raised the flag; it shares flagpole space with an American flag, and is just feet from a yard sign promoting Bernie Sanders.
Dennis said that he saw the disagreement as an opportunity for the community to have a dialogue about the meaning of the flag, and the need to be welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds.
“The community needs to respond in such a way to deeply honor both the feelings of the person who was offended by it and at the same time the rights to freedom of speech,” Dennis said. “The only way I can think of to do that is through bringing these two together.”
On Saturday, Smith sent an email out to Dennis, the Valley News, and a group of friends in the community in which he stated his intention to go visit Rogers’ home.
Smith’s email, and responses from friends, spoke of the need to have a positive and non-threatening dialogue that might persuade Rogers to take the flag down, but Smith also asked for volunteers to form a “posse” to join him. He referred to Rogers as a “Civil War Jihadist” — the same term he used to describe the Charleston shooter.
Smith said that, while growing up in the port city of New Amsterdam, Guyana, which was then a British colony in South America, the notion of racism seemed distant.
“It was a magical place, because there were all sorts of people, speaking different languages,” he said. “I don’t have any anxiety with white folks because growing up, it was lovely.”
In the 1980s, Smith moved to New York City, and then to New Orleans. In all that time, he said, he never saw the Confederate flag on display.
And when he came to White River Junction several years ago, he said, he found it to be a welcoming community, despite the lack of diversity (U.S. Census Bureau records show the village is, like the rest of Vermont, 95 percent white).
Rogers grew up in the area; he has spent time in both Hartford and Lebanon, and attended Lebanon High School.
His own childhood was rough and tumble — he said he remembers spending time at the Haven, a homeless shelter, and is eager to make a better life for his children than he had for himself.
Today, Rogers and his wife, Nichole Rogers, piece together a living from her job at the local Price Chopper, a Social Security check for his disability, and their own small salvage company, Sanford and Son.
Rogers spoke convincingly of his own acceptance of others.
He cited having black and gay friends. He said he and his wife have talked about teaching their children more about diversity, by planning a family trip to a black heritage museum. He said he supported the progressive Bernie Sanders in the presidential election (hence the placement of the Sanders sign), and expressed concern for the rights of minorities, including women.
“Black people have to work twice as hard to get to the same place as a white person,” Rogers said. “That’s not right.”
On Sunday afternoon, Smith visited Rogers’ home with Dennis and former Selectwoman Bethany Fleishman to express their concerns and ask Rogers to remove the flag.
They were met by Rogers, his wife, and his wife’s mother, Kay Tolbert, who actually purchased the flag for Rogers.
The small group met for more than an hour in what Smith called a “very emotional” conversation.
At the end of it, both Smith and Rogers still didn’t see eye to eye on the issue of the flag, but the tenor of the conversation had changed dramatically.
“Before I met Kenny, I didn’t have any idea of who he was,” Smith said. “He’s had a tough life. He seems like a nice guy. He was amiable. He has lots of kids.”
Rogers said that he would be happy to meet Smith and the others on the street.
“They were really nice people,” he said. “We got along really good.”
Despite their newfound respect for each other, there was still a gap between their positions on the flag.
Smith said he was frustrated that Rogers just didn’t seem to appreciate the flag’s bloody history, or the pain that it caused others.
“He doesn’t care about the import and what it means and what happened,” he said.
He held out hope that Rogers would change his mind.
“He said the flag may not come down today, but he led us to believe he would think about it,” Smith said.
Rogers said the flag will remain, but he hoped that it wouldn’t interfere with his relationship with Smith.
“I think he’s a nice man that doesn’t want to be around people that he thinks are racist,” he said. “Now that he knows I’m not racist, I don’t think it’s an issue.”
Gilbert said that the ACLU defends free speech, but that those who fly the Confederate flag have more than an offensive symbol on display. Even when the intention isn’t to be malicious, he said, it’s just a bad idea.
“It shows a lack of understanding of feeling of people in our society,” he said. “I think most of us are working really hard to be more sensitive to how other people are sensitive to things that we don’t think are a big deal.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.