Confederate flag suit leads Alpharetta to pull out of hosting parade

“This is a damn shame,” said Mayor Jim Gilvin.

For the past 67 years, Alpharetta has held the Old Soldiers Day Parade to honor veterans, but divisive public discussion on the Confederate flag may have finally ended the tradition.

The Alpharetta City Council unanimously voted Monday to stop using taxpayer dollars to put on the Old Soldiers Day Parade, citing a lawsuit by a local Sons of Confederate Veterans group that Alpharetta barred from flying the Confederate flag at the city-sponsored event.

City spokesman James Drinkard said Alpharetta spent $20,000 on the Aug. 3 parade. Pete Esker, head of the American Legion Post 201 — which has helped with the event for decades — said they fundraise to break even on costs but “there’s no way we could afford the parade on our own.” Drinkard said the $20,000 pricetag includes parade supplies along with promotion but not staff time to plan the event and close the streets.

No matter what, residents are left without a clear picture of who will to put on their beloved parade.

BACKGROUND | After court ruling, Confederate group won't fly flag in Alpharetta parade

“This is a damn shame,” Mayor Jim Gilvin said at the meeting. “And unfortunately we’ve come to the point where as a government entity we can no longer ensure that events sponsored by us remain something that are supported by our neighbors and bring us together as a community, and so it’s just time for us to get out of this parade business.”

When asked if Sons of Confederate Veterans members were disappointed that the parade’s future was in jeopardy, spokesman Martin O’Toole said: “The fault would lie with the city because for the sake of political correctness, they decided to cancel the parade, which we had participated in for 15 years, rather than display the Confederate battle flag. They’re dishonoring all American veterans by their actions.”

Confederate symbols have been hotly contested in Georgia and across the country. Some view it as a hateful reminder of the country's past and others view it as a symbol of their heritage. This conversation about what to do with physical representations of America's racist past is happening in a world of the previously unimaginable — where a black man, Tyler Perry, bought 330 acres that used to be Confederate land (later becoming military base Fort McPherson) and built a movie studio complex that just hosted a presidential debate.

The Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans say they had been flying the flag in the parade until the city raised objections. Drinkard said the city started getting complaints about the presence of the battle flag in the parade in 2017 — the same year a man drove through a crowd during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. She and others were seeking the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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The Sons of Confederate Veterans group were given the option to appear in the Alpharetta parade if they didn’t fly the Confederate flag, but they refused, saying no one would recognize them without it. A small group of people flew the battle flag on the sidewalks alongside the parade this year and in 2018.

“We are obviously disappointed in last night’s vote to end a nearly 70-year partnership to honor America’s veterans and active duty military,” Esker said.

O’Toole said he feels good about the group’s chances of winning in court. Members of the group sued days before the parade saying not being allowed to fly the flag in the parade was a violation of their First Amendment rights. They tried to get a federal judge to rule in their favor, but the flag stayed out of the parade because U.S. District Judge William M. Ray II didn’t rule either way, meaning the flag stayed out of the parade.

Mayor Gilvin said anyone is welcome to apply for a permit to continue the event in 2020, but O’Toole said none of this stops the lawsuit because the city could still get involved with a new incarnation of the event and said a new city administration might feel different about allowing the flag to fly.

That’s why the Sons group is continuing to fight in court to force a decision on the issue and set some legal precedence. The judge ruled Monday that the case will continue, saying both sides should be ready for a trial in July.

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