After court ruling, Confederate group won’t fly flag in Alpharetta parade

A federal judge’s decision Friday afternoon means the Confederate battle flag will not fly Saturday morning at an Alpharetta parade founded to honor Civil War veterans.

The Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans was given the option to appear in the parade if they didn’t fly the flag, but the group refused, saying no one would recognize them without it.

Tim Pilgrim, Georgia division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said they will continue to fight the city and hope to fly the battle flag at next year’s parade.

“We’re full steam ahead,” Pilgrim said. “We’re not going to take this violation of our First Amendment rights.”

GALLERY | Photos from Saturday's parade

U.S. District Judge William M. Ray II said it was the last-minute nature of the Confederate group’s Wednesday lawsuit — not the merits of case — that caused him to side with the city Friday.

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“At first blush, it appears that defendants are not on a ‘good footing’ in prohibiting the exhibition of the Confederate battle flag; however, the timing of this suit does not sit well with the Court,” the judge wrote.

The group filed the emergency lawsuit six days after the city sent a letter saying it wouldn’t allow the flag.

“We had to prepare. We had to get case law together and prepare the complaint,” Pilgrim said. “I see where the judge is coming from, but it was a last-minute thing.”

This is the 67th consecutive year for the Old Soldiers Day Parade, which is hosted by Alpharetta and the city’s American Legion Post 201.

City spokesman James Drinkard said the parade was started to honor veterans after the Civil War. The parade stopped being held annually at some point but was revived again in the 1950s — a time when the civil rights movement formed and demand for Confederate monuments spiked.

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Rick Leake, who submitted the Confederate group’s application, said they'd participated in the parade for about 15 years and flown the flag without a problem. Now, he said, the city is against the flag because they claim it is divisive.

“We know it’s a lie because we know our history and heritage,” Pilgrim said. “If you’re offended by the battle flag or anything about the Confederacy, you need a history lesson.”

This is a photo of the Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans display from the 2018 Old Soldiers Day Parade in Alpharetta. (Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans)

Credit: Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans

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Credit: Roswell Mills Camp 1547 Sons of Confederate Veterans

When asked why the city no longer allows the flag, Drinkard said the city didn’t feel comfortable with the flag after August 2017 — when 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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Confederate symbols have been hotly contested in Georgia and across the country. Weeks ago, the city of Atlanta said it would erect contextual markers next to four Confederate monuments as a way to explain the monuments.

Leake wrote in the parade application that his Confederate group is “dedicated to preserving the memory of our ancestors who served in the War Between the States and ensuring that the Southern view of that conflict is preserved.”

He applied in early July for the group to join the parade, according to court records. The city responded the next day saying the parade exists to “unite our community for the purpose of celebrating American war veterans and recognizing their service to our Nation.”

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The letter went on to explain that “it also cannot be ignored that the Confederate battle flag has become a divisive symbol that a large portion of our citizens see as symbolizing oppression and slavery rather than the service of the men and women who fought for what they considered, for a variety of reasons, to be their nation.”

The application was also a sticking point for the judge, who chastised the Confederate group for sending it a month after the deadline. Pilgrim said that’s because the city usually mails the applications to returning groups, and when the local chapter asked the city why they hadn’t gotten one, the city said it was still considering whether it would allow the group to participate.

Pilgrim said last year was the first time that the city gave the group the ultimatum: If you want to be in the parade, you can’t fly the battle flag. The group agreed to those terms, although there were some people along the parade route waving the flag.

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Part of the city’s reason for banning the battle flag, according to a letter from the city attorney, was a concern for safety and to avoid “disorder or violence that could as easily come from those that oppose the Confederate battle flags as from those that support it.”

With that history of tension, the judge said the group should have known there would be an issue and an injunction wouldn’t be fair.

Pilgrim said they may have lost the battle, but could win the war.

“He didn’t rule against us,” Pilgrim said. “He just felt he needed more time to make an informed decision. And we respect that. We were hoping we could work something out beforehand ... But that’s not the case, so we’ll be ready for next year.”

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The City of Atlanta has given final approval for the installation of large exhibit markers meant to contextualize Confederate monuments.