The nation’s pitched and passionate debate over the display of the Confederate flag has found its voice in the northern state of Minnesota, where a firefighter flew the most enduring symbol of the Civil War South alongside Old Glory on a fire truck in a July 4th weekend parade in Albert Lea.
The Confederate flag flew at the same height as the U.S. flag from the back of the truck belonging to the Freeborn County town of Hartland during the “3rd of July Parade” on Friday, which was organized by the Chamber of Commerce. Also over the weekend, the Confederate flag fluttered on a vehicle in a small-town July 4th parade south of Pelican Rapids, Minn.
The flag’s display in the South and elsewhere has been widely questioned since the June 17 mass killing in a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C. The alleged shooter has posted photos of himself with the flag in the past on social media.
Government officials and others have been pressured in recent weeks to remove the flag and its likeness from displays ranging from outside the South Carolina Capitol to NASCAR auto race events to retail outlets.
The Hartland fire truck was driven by Brian Nielsen, a firefighter for about 10 years with the department. Nielsen said Sunday that he was not endorsing slavery but was fed up with what he views as “political correctness” attacking a symbol that is part of history.
“My view is that PC is going too far taking things out of history,” said Nielsen, who added that his actions led to his being suspended by his chief. “It has nothing to do with slavery. I don’t see color, black or white. We’re all equal.”
Randy Kehr, the chamber’s executive director said, “My personal view is that it was unfortunate” that the Confederate flag was flown in the parade. “Certainly, it’s within their right. It’s a difficult situation. … It’s a part of history. It truly is.”
Kehr said he didn’t know ahead of time that the Southern flag would be flown, and, if he had, “I would probably have asked [Nielsen] respectfully not to fly it.”
Nielsen said the Confederate flag’s display was his decision alone and he did not think he needed his department’s approval.
“I didn’t think it would bring this much attention,” he said. “I just wanted to stand up and say that PC is not right all the time. They’re actually not right most of the time.”
Before the parade, Nielsen said, a woman wearing a DFL patch on her shirt came up to him and criticized him for having the Confederate flag on the truck. Otherwise, he added, “there were some people who stood up and clapped” as the truck went by with the two flags side by side.
Parade rules given to entrants say “all vehicles … must be decorated in either a patriotic theme or according to the parade theme.” This year’s theme: “Teaming Up for America.”
Kehr chuckled a bit and acknowledged that the Hartland fire truck was “probably not” in compliance.
During the community’s fireworks Saturday night, Kehr said, he heard nothing about the Confederate flag flying in the parade.
“I think in about two days it will essentially be forgotten,” he said.
Confederate flag elsewhere
At least one other parade in Minnesota had a Confederate flag displayed during July 4th festivities this weekend. In the Otter Tail County community of Erhard, a four-wheel ATV representing a NAPA auto parts store sported a U.S. flag that was flanked by smaller and lower Confederate and NAPA flags.
“The Fourth of July seems like an odd time to fly the flag of a rebel group that wanted to split the country, whose birth we celebrate, in two,” said parade spectator and Twin Cities resident Ryan Ruud. “Everyone is entitled to exercise their right to freedom of speech. However, when represented with a brand, responsibility and caution generally is taken up a notch.”
Ruud said spectators seemed unfazed by the flag’s presence in the parade.
“There wasn’t much of a reaction to it at the parade,” he said. “I own a digital marketing and branding firm, and when I saw it being waved as part of a business float with a national presence — NAPA — I snapped a photo.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.