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Residents Of Small Tennessee Town Fight Over The Confederate Flag

The fight over the Confederate flag in Hendersonville is a microcosm of a larger battle raging across the state in the days since a gunman killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

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When half a dozen or so protesters decided to use a Hendersonville, Tennessee, park to stage a rally for the Confederate flag on Wednesday afternoon, they drew camera crews and a few passersby honking horns in solidarity.

They also drew the attention of town resident Sibyl Reagan, a Tennessee native and self-proclaimed "local rabble rouser" who immediately took to Facebook and organized a counter-protest she hopes will see many residents lining the streets around the same park for a rally where they'll wave American flags and spread "the message of peace."

"We're going to go to the same place that they were, we're going to do the same thing, but hopefully we're going to get a different message out," she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview Thursday.

The 48-hour fight over the Confederate flag in Hendersonville is a microcosm of a larger battle raging across the state in the days since a gunman killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The debate over Confederate imagery — packed away behind compromise legislation across the South after a national fight in the late 1990s that left many symbols on prominent display — burst back onto center stage after governors across the region called for the Stars and Bars to come down from capitol grounds.

In Tennessee, the debate is not over the flag so much as it is over Nathan Bedford Forrest, a state native, Confederate general and, after the Civil War, prominent figure in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

After South Carolina's governor called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said it was time for officials to make an exception to state law so the 4 foot tall bust of Forrest could be removed from their own Statehouse. Some Republican leaders quickly lined up behind Haslam, but others — most notably Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, have pushed back — hard. (Democrats in the state, minorities in both houses of the legislature, are more or less united behind removing the bust.)

The Forrest debate is deeply personal, tying the Confederacy directly to a conflict defined by Tennessee state law as the "War Between The States," which is remembered by many white residents for the valor of their ancestors.

Those battle lines also define the split in Hendersonville, where native Tennesseans with generations of history plan to send a message Thursday that the Confederate flag does not represent them.

"My great great grandfather...he was a teenager when he went to Gallatin and enlisted in the cavalry unit for the Confederacy," Scott Sprouse, a Hendersonville alderman and co-organizer of the anti-Confederate flag rally told BuzzFeed news. "He lived in the house of his older brother, who was married and had children.

"I respect him for rising to the call of duty, I respect his service in protection of his family I respect the service to his state, but that doesn't mean I need to respect the politics of Confederate leaders who have been dead for more than 150 years."

Wednesday's protesters told reporters at the scene they were waving the Confederate flag out of a devotion to Tennessee's past.

"Our rebel flags aren't about hate, it's about heritage," Tyson Ellis told WSMV news.

Reagan rejects the idea that honoring the Confederate past or even Forrest's troops requires flying the Stars and Bars. Her family history includes a great grandfather that she says served closely with Forrest during the Civil War.

"It's my history and my heritage," she told BuzzFeed News.

Supporters of the Confederate flag, she added, can be grating because they tell a story about her town she says just isn't true.

"It's frustrating for all of us, all you get is the waving flag crazy people on the news and that's just not representative of the people I know, regardless of their political persuasion," Reagan said.

Other civic leaders in Hendersonville are in on the plan to drown out the Confederate flag supporters. Sprouse said the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall lent him 11 "full display size" American flags, and he purchased about 30 more ranging from midsize to little flags for kids to wave.

Sprouse and Reagan expect their protest to be much larger than the turnout on Wednesday.

However, the flag battle may rage on. Late Thursday, some Facebook posts in Hendersonville urged Confederate flag supporters to bring their banners to city hall, where Sprouse and other aldermen will be voting on a local tax increase.

But Sprouse believes his side will win out in the end.

"The main message is Hendersonville is one city in one country with one flag," he said. "We decided we want to come out and wave the American flag. That's the flag my grandfather fought under in World War II, and that's the flag my great grandfather lived under when he came home from the Civil War."

He added: "I'm gonna fly the flag that unites."

Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.

Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at evan@buzzfeed.com.

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