Peaceful protest at Howard ceremony Confederate group's rededication draws 100 demonstrators

September 28, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

A ceremony to honor Howard County Confederate war dead went peacefully yesterday afternoon, despite about 100 protesters who felt that the event promoted racism and hatred.

About 200 people attended the rededication of a 50-year-old Confederate monument outside the Howard County Circuit Courthouse in Ellicott City at 2 p.m. yesterday. They sang "Dixie," saluted the Confederate flag -- and listened to a speech that accused Maryland's secretary of state, John T. Willis, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening of trying to erase Maryland's Southern heritage.

"There is a lingering cloud of political correctness in this state that impairs Gov. Glendening's vision," said Patrick J. Griffin III, commander in chief for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"Grab a rail, a bucket of hot tar and some feathers, and head for Annapolis," he said, eliciting applause from the crowd.

Willis had refused Friday to issue a proclamation endorsing the Sons of Confederate Veterans ceremony on the grounds that an official statement would unnecessarily inflame emotions. Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, however, issued a proclamation endorsing the event last week, adding to the ire of activists who felt the county should not be taking sides.

As the rededication ceremony unfolded behind the courthouse, another gathering took place in front. Demonstrators sang "We Shall Overcome," listened to a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, and criticized the Sons of Confederate Veterans for perpetuating racism. While Griffin gave his speech, demonstrators walked down the hill to the back of the courthouse and stood silently in protest before walking back up the hill.

One activist, the Rev. John L. Wright, of the Guilford Community Church in Columbia, wore an "Auction For Sale" sign to remind people, he said, of the brutalities of slavery.

After their march down the hill, the Rev. Stephen W. Williams of True Life Church in Columbia gave a speech accusing rededication participants of racism.

"We cannot tolerate this kind of attitude in Howard County," he said, while members of the crowd shouted "Right, brother" and "Amen" and the sound of bagpipes drifted from the celebrations down the hill. "We don't want Howard County to be a gated community."

"They, to us, are still fighting the Civil War," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. "In essence, they are saying that the culture that existed during that time is still a relevant culture for today. So that means they want to maintain this whole thing of white privilege and that means that you're excluding blacks."

After the event, Howard County Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo said he sensed the possibility of violence when the protesters marched down the hill.

"There was potential for emotions to get inflamed," he said. "If you listened to some of those speeches, they were totally out of the realm of honoring the dead," he added. "That was way out of line for the permit that was issued."

The protesters, unlike the ceremony participants, did not get a permit from the county. Chiuchiolo told them they had the right to gather and sing freedom songs, but only where it would not disturb the rededication.

At least one ceremony participant -- Carolyn S. Billups, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from Mechanicsville -- did not know a demonstration was taking place until after the ceremony, despite the presence of about 10 law enforcement officers. She was dressed in a purple period dress and her petticoats were decorated with Confederate flags.

Although she did not know about the controversy that has been brewing in Howard County, she said she has heard protesters' arguments before and doesn't buy any of them.

"The war wasn't fought over slavery," she said. "It was fought over states' rights." She added, shaking her hands, "You want to shake them, saying, 'Look, read it. It is there in your library.' "

Saundra Jordan of McLean, Va., said after the ceremony that the activists didn't understand "history as it happened."

"We are not celebrating slavery," she said. "We are honoring our ancestors, brave individuals who fought for their country. They fought for what they believed in. They fought because their homes were being invaded by foreigners."

Bryan Green, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Columbia and the re-dedication's organizer, also said he hardly noticed the demonstrators.

"I noticed some people standing off to the side, but that's it," he said. During the ceremony, he was awarded the Sons of Confederate Veterans Heritage Award -- given to one or two members a year -- for organizing the rededication and becoming its media spokesman.

"It's a free country," he said. "The First Amendment gives them that right [to protest]. It also gives us the right to be here."

That, said Stan Jordan, Saundra Jordan's husband, was the beauty of the scene at the courthouse yesterday -- protesters and all.

"This is really in my judgment a celebration of democracy," he said. "It's like buttresses on opposing ends of the cathedral. They keep each other from falling in."

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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