RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Confederate battle flag hung inside the old North Carolina State Capitol to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is raising concern with civil rights leaders.
The flag was raised inside the House chamber last week as part of an historical display intended to replicate how the antebellum building appeared in 1863.
State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison said Thursday the flag should be viewed in its proper historical context.
"Our goal is not to create issues," said Hardison, a Civil War re-enactor and history buff. "Our goal is to help people understand issues of the past. ... If you refuse to put something that someone might object to or have a concern with in the exhibit, then you are basically censoring history."
North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber was shocked Friday when he was shown a photo of the flag by The Associated Press.
"He is right that it has a historical context," Barber said. "But what is that history? The history of racism. The history of lynchings. The history of death. The history of slavery. If you say that shouldn't be offensive, then either you don't know the history, or you are denying the history."
Sessions of the General Assembly moved to a newer building a half-century ago, but the old capitol is still routinely used as a venue for official state government events. Gov. Pat McCrory's office is on the first floor, as are the offices of his chief of staff and communications staff.
The governor was in the House chamber where the Confederate flag hangs as recently as Thursday, when he presided over the swearing in ceremony of his new Highway Patrol commander.
McCrory, a Republican, was not immediately available for comment Friday, a state government holiday.
The presentation of the Confederate battle flag at state government buildings has long been an issue of debate throughout the South. For more than a decade, the NAACP has urged its members to boycott South Carolina because of that state's display of the flag on the state capitol grounds.
Prior to taking his current job in North Carolina in 2006, Hardison worked as director at the Mississippi home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which is operated as a museum and library owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group has led the fight in the South for the proud display of the Confederate flag, which it contends is a symbol of heritage, not hate.
Hardison said the battle flag is displayed with other flags described in the diary of a North Carolina woman who visited the capitol in 1863. A large U.S. flag displayed in the Senate chamber is reminiscent of a trophy of war captured from Union troops at the Battle of Plymouth.
"I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to recreate this," Hardison said. "I think we were all thinking along the same vein. ... The Capitol is both a working seat of government, in that the governor and his staff has his office there. But it is also a museum."
A placard near the entrance of the House and Senate chambers describes the history of the flags on display, and Hardison said a brochure with more information is available at the front desk downstairs. Guides giving daily tours of the building have also been briefed to recount the history of the flags to visitors.
Hardison also pointed out that the national flag used by the Confederate government, with its circle of white stars and red and white stripes, is still flown over the State Capitol dome each year on Confederate Memorial Day. The more familiar battle flag, featuring a blue "X'' studded with white stars, was originally used by the rebel military.
The battle flag is set to be on display in the House chamber until April 2015, when Hardison said plans call for ceremoniously replacing it with the Stars and Stripes to re-enact the arrival of Union troops in Raleigh 150 years earlier.
Barber said if someone wants to display the Confederate battle flag across the street at the N.C. Museum of History, he has no objection. But to display the flag where the governor has his office is over the line, Barber said.
"That flag does not represent out democracy," Barber said. "It represents division. Underneath that flag, bodies were hung. People were terrorized. The people who marched under that flag deliberately violated the fundamental principles of freedom in our Constitution, to keep radical discrimination in place. It should come down."
Follow Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck