A standing-room-only crowd packed the Community Center in Morton on Monday night as citizens flooded the Morton City Council meeting to vent their frustrations or support for a controversial float from the Loggers Jubilee parade earlier this month.
The float in question was sponsored by a local tavern and adorned with a Confederate flag. It was awarded first place for best in show as well as first place in the businesses and society category and second place for creativity.
Morton Mayor Dan Mortensen clarified that the city has no part in awarding the prizes for floats or trucks in the parade. The truck judges are professionals brought in from out of town while the parade float judge panel is composed of unnamed local volunteers.
“This is why we don’t tell anyone who the judges are is because of situations like this,” Mortensen said. “We don’t want anyone’s house getting bombed.”
Mortensen also noted that he was not officially associated with the parade or the judging, but his wife, Nema ,served as the parade coordinator.
Those points did little to quell the disappointment of many in attendance.
The first three speakers called the coronation of a Confederate-branded parade float an embarrassment to the city of Morton and its residents. The speakers said they understood that a business has a right to fly whatever flag they desire within their own establishment, but they questioned the judgment of allowing such a divisive symbol to be allowed in a community parade.
Some speakers called for a revised set of rules that would prohibit the display of symbols such as swastikas or the Confederate flag in the parade. Others called for an economic boycott of businesses in Morton and surrounding East Lewis County that were associated with the parade and the decision to build or award such a controversial float.
Many of the speakers called for the city to issue an official apology.
Jess Martin, a rural business developer who lives in Mineral, noted she is originally from Virginia, once home to the Confederacy and its flag, and she has found it strange to discover the number of people who proudly display Confederate flags in a region so far removed from that history and culture. Martin said she came to the meeting just to listen but couldn’t hold her tongue.
“I really hope we didn’t let anyone walk away with a bad impression (at the parade), because they’re not going to tell any of the business owners that they’re offended. They’re just going to leave,” said Martin.
Chuck Haunreiter did not mince words.
“If you don’t apologize, it will never go away. People will say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a racist county and Salkum is the capitol,’” he told the council.
But some other speakers defended the use of the Confederate flag and how it is a symbol of liberty to some. Several speeches were dedicated to the history of the flag, with one speaker explaining that it is not the “Confederate flag” but the battle flag of North Virginia, a Confederate-era army under the direction of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
City Clerk Tammy Clevenger called for a public apology to the city for the undue embarrassment the controversy has caused residents. But she dismissed threats to boycott the businesses involved as misguided and harmful.
“There are a lot of people working as hard as they can in those shops just to raise their children,” she said. “Do you know which flag Walmart supports?”
Roxy Cupp, owner of the Brown Shack Tavern in Salkum, which presented the controversial parade float, said she has been taken aback by the response she has received over her decorations. She believes that flying the Confederate flag is an important symbol in the effort to protect the freedom of Americans from their own government.
Most of all, though, she said the float, which featured drunken taxidermy and water guns, was supposed to be fun.
“We didn’t win because of the flags. We won because we captured the audience and the judges,” Cupp told the council. “It was a fun float, period. ... My intention was to make people smile and laugh, which they did.”
Morton City Councilor Amanda West addressed the responsibilities attached to the right of free speech.
“Once you make a display or deliver a message, you lose control over how it will be interpreted,” she said. “Once you make a speech in a public square, you then have to deal with everything that comes with it.”
However, West also noted that she didn’t see that the City of Morton was culpable for the parade display — an opinion Mayor Mortensen agreed with.
“For the city to apologize, I don’t think we have done anything to apologize for,” Mortensen said. “Are times changing? Absolutely. Should we look into our practices? Absolutely. But those decisions are not going to be made here tonight.”
He added, “I will tell you that because of tonight’s meeting this will be a topic of discussion with the Loggers Jubilee committee.”
After the meeting, Mortensen expressed his disappointment that he and his city have attracted such negative attention, but he commended those who attended the meeting for their civil, impassioned discourse.
“I thought it went extremely well. I don’t think you could’ve asked for a better one, especially with the differing viewpoints that were presented,” Mortensen said.