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Black Virginia lawmakers want to ax state flag salute

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RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia House of Delegates was brimming with post-Sept. 11 patriotism on the first day of the 2002 session, when it approved a proposal to start each daily session by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and a salute to the state flag.

Two days later, on Jan. 11, the delegates learned through a newspaper article that the state flag salute was written in 1946 by a member of a Confederate heritage group. Now, despite having voted for the rule, black lawmakers say the salute evokes painful memories of a segregationist past and they want it discontinued.

"This is a flag issue that raises a flag — a red flag — for us," Delegate Dwight C. Jones said Thursday as black legislators announced they would propose an amendment striking the salute from the rules. A vote is expected next week.

Critics says it's not the words in the salute that are troubling, but their connection to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The salute, written by Cassie Gravely, opens the Confederate group's meetings in Virginia. The General Assembly adopted it in 1954 as "the official salute to the flag of Virginia."

Most legislators were not aware of the salute's origin until the Jan. 11 article appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Black delegates have argued against the tribute in speeches on the House floor, and several lawmakers, both black and white, now stand silently facing the Virginia flag each day while their colleagues recite the words:

"I salute the flag of Virginia, with reverence and patriotic devotion to the 'Mother of States and Statesmen' which it represents — the 'Old Dominion,' where liberty and independence were born."

Supporters of the salute said it is the words that matter — not the author or the racial discrimination prevalent in Virginia at the time they were written. Delegate Robert McDonnell, the Republican who proposed the daily salute, is not backing down.

"The telling event as far as I'm concerned is that when I read the words, everyone understood them and agreed with them, and it passed on a unanimous voice vote," said McDonnell, who is white.

However, opponents of the salute say the fact that they are offended is reason enough to strike the rule.

"I don't want the echoes of bondage and segregation haunting my present and certainly not my future," Delegate Kenneth Melvin, who is one of 10 blacks in the 100-member House, said in an emotional floor speech Wednesday.

Delegate Mary Christian, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the decision to seek repeal of the rule was made after attempts to write a new salute acceptable to both sides failed.

The dispute over the flag salute is the latest chapter in Virginia's long history of struggles over its Old South heritage.

In 1997, the General Assembly — which meets in the former Confederate capitol — retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as the state song because of racially offensive lyrics, including references to "darkey" and "massa."

Other battles have been fought over special Confederate license plates, Confederate History Month proclamations, the addition of a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe to those of Confederate heroes in Richmond, and the inclusion of a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee with other historical figures on the Richmond flood wall.

"People are stuck in time," said King Salim Khalfani, state executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We're just trying to get Virginia to move forward."

Khalfani said it's unconscionable for the House to keep a salute that offends so many.

"What it represents is an abomination to African-American people and to most forward-thinking people," he said.