FAIRFIELD — Raymond Agnor’s gigantic Confederate battle flag, the size of a backyard swimming pool, hung limply from its 80-foot pole on a windless summer day.
From its spot on Billboard Hill just off Interstate 81, the flag is easily visible to thousands of passing motorists. And it flies just north of Lexington, a city rich in Civil War history where displays of the battle flag rubbed a sore spot long before they became a national issue in connection with last month’s church shooting in South Carolina.
Even on days when a strong breeze raised its profile, Agnor’s flag did not provoke a ruckus — until last week, when he purchased a newspaper advertisement that ran on page 5 of the The News-Gazette in Lexington.
“About the Confederate Flag,” the ad stated. “Because of all the trouble the democrats and black race are causing, I place this ad. No black people or democrats are allowed on my property until further notice.”
As he sat next to his red pickup truck parked beneath the flag, Agnor made no apologies Wednesday for it or the ad, which led to a Facebook firestorm and an online petition demanding an apology from The News-Gazette.
“I don’t want them on my property because I have seen what they did in Baltimore and Ferguson and other places,” Agnor said during an interview, referring to protests and riots in those cities. “They’re not going to come on my property and do that.”
When The News-Gazette published Agnor’s ad in its July 15 edition, it reignited a debate that has flared on and off in the Lexington area.
LEXINGTON — Waving rainbow flags and holding up placards promoting diversity, more than 500 …
“Such rhetoric is overtly racist, polarizing, and hateful,” read an online petition that called for an apology from the weekly newspaper. “We are baffled as to why the News-Gazette would take money to run such a bigoted and vitriolic ad, especially given the fact that we live in an area with such a long and dark history of violence against African Americans. Publishing this ad promotes an image of Lexington and the surrounding community as racist, divisive, and unwelcoming.”
The petition has drawn more than 320 online signatures. By late last week, Matt Paxton, the newspaper’s publisher, had apologized.
At first, when critical comments were just starting to pile up on the paper’s Facebook page, Paxton defended his decision to publish the ad. He cited a policy of rejecting material that makes personal attacks, is potentially libelous or contains a threat.
“Did the ad meet any of those standards? In my judgment, I did not think so,” Paxton wrote in a Facebook post.
And while the newspaper also found the ad’s words offensive, “I felt that it was important for our readers to see that the views expressed in the ad are held by people in our community,” the post continued. “We’ve often compared the newspaper to a mirror of our community. We try to show both the positive and not so positive aspects of our area. We feel it’s important to offer this perspective.”
Several days later, Paxton reversed course.
“I have read all the comments made up to this point, and I am impressed with the depth of thought contained in them,” he wrote in Facebook comments that also appeared in this week’s newspaper. “What I hoped would be illuminating has instead proven to be merely offensive to many of our readers. For that, I apologize. In retrospect, my decision to run the ad was a mistake.”
Yet the talk continues.
“Usually Lexington is somewhat of a laid-back community,” said Marylin Alexander, a member of the city council. “But this ad has caused quite a stir.”
Agnor’s 20-by-30-foot battle flag went up in late March, before the fatal shootings of nine parishioners at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. News that hate-crime suspect Dylann Roof had posed for photographs with the Confederate battle flag created a backlash that led to the removal of the flag from the state’s capital grounds and other public places.
In Lexington, where Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are buried — and still celebrated by some — that debate had already taken place.
In 2011, after hearing complaints about Confederate flags being flown from street light poles on Lee-Jackson Day, the city council passed an ordinance that allowed only the U.S., Virginia and city flags to be hung from the government-owned fixtures.
A lawsuit by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, challenging the ordinance on free-speech grounds, was unsuccessful. Supporters of the Confederate flag were dealt another blow last summer, when Washington and Lee University decided to remove Confederate flag replicas from the campus chapel were Lee is buried.
Those events led the Virginia Flaggers, a pro-Confederacy group, to pick Lexington as a battleground. The organization placed newspaper ads in the region, looking for people who would be willing to fly its flags on their private property.
In April, Agnor saw one of the solicitations and agreed to have a flag erected on his 32-acre Rockbridge County property, on a hill between billboards for the Natural Bridge Zoo and the Lee Hi Travel Plaza. At least two other large banners attributed to the Virginia Flaggers also appeared in the area. Attempts to reach the organization were unsuccessful.
There were some “mumblings and grumblings” in the community when Agnor’s flag appeared, Alexander said, but that’s as far as it went.
Lexington Mayor Mimi Elrod said that once the banner was barred from public light poles, “most people just thought if people want to put up a Confederate flag in their yard, that’s OK. I’m offended by it. A lot of people are offended by it. But there’s not a lot we can do.”
Agnor’s ad, however, pushed some people too far. “This ad supports hates against a race,” one Facebook commenter wrote.
But the 73-year-old retired truck driver is pushing back. “I don’t think I should have to give up my rights to please somebody else’s rights,” he said of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. “If they don’t respect my rights, how can I respect their rights?”
The way Agnor sees it, the public is being given a distorted view of what the Confederacy stood for, and that it’s time to start fighting back.
“For every Confederate flag that is taken down, there will be 100 more that are put up,” he said.
“It’s leading to another Civil War if they don’t stop before it gets out of hand. That’s what [President] Obama wants. My purpose is not to cause trouble, but to prevent it.”
But wasn’t Agnor looking for trouble himself, by flying his giant flag and running his ad?
“That’s a matter of opinion,” he said. “That’s their opinion and not mine.”
Like many people who wave the Confederate flag, Agnor insists the Civil War was not fought over slavery. And that supporters of the flag are inspired by a love of heritage, not hatred of blacks.
But his ad says otherwise, Elrod believes. “I think he’s shown his colors by saying the blacks and the Democrats are the problem,” the Lexington mayor said. Elrod has run for mayor as an independent but ran for the House of Delegates in 2005 as a Democrat.
As for the question of how to balance Agnor’s Constitutional rights with the thorny question of whether his ad should have been published in a newspaper, Elrod said she has mixed feelings.
Doug Harwood, editor of The Rockbridge Advocate — a monthly news magazine with the motto “independent as a hog on ice” — says he plans to run Agnor’s ad in his next edition.
“I’m not in the business of censoring people,” said Harwood, who draws no distinction between whether their words are part of a paid advertisement, news story or editorial comment.
“I am a firm believer that whether it’s paid or not paid, newspapers ought to be out in the forefront of defending free speech, no matter how offensive it is.”
And if offensive words trigger a conversation in the community about a pressing issue, “what’s the matter with that?” Harwood said. “It’s good that we’re talking about this stuff, finally.”
Officials at The Roanoke Times declined to say whether they would have published the ad. The paper “reserves the right to reject advertising on the basis of libel, defamation, privacy, obscenity, profanity and taste. The newspaper carefully evaluates advertising content to ensure it meets these standards daily,” read a statement from Terry Jamerson, publisher of The Roanoke Times.
Michelle Brock, a history professor at Washington and Lee who helped organize the petition, said Thursday that she appreciates Paxton’s apology.
“That said, I found his initial responses on Facebook and his editorial apology to be deeply disappointing on a number of levels,” Brock wrote in an email. “Most glaringly, he failed to apologize specifically to black members of the community, the group most adversely affected by the baffling choice to publish the ad.”
“People of color have too often been made to feel unwelcome and unsafe by actions and attitudes of many in our area. In my view, Mr. Paxton’s apology probably did very little to ameliorate their concerns.”
Paxton was out of town this week and unavailable for comment.
While a social media debate continues over The News-Gazette’s actions, there’s talk among Lexington leaders about how to best deal with the fallout.
“The flag is divisive, no matter which way you see it. I just hope people will care enough about their neighbors, and how they feel, to think about that before they decide to fly it,” Elrod said.
Her colleague on city council, Alexander, said she has been involved in discussions about organizing a community forum, “so there is an awareness of how both sides feel.”
“It’s very important to me that when you have something ugly like this, there is some good,” she said. “To have some good to come from it.”