Letter: Old Burial Ground battle flags divide us

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.

The following letter is from Reverend Phil LaBelle.]

To the Editor:

I won’t be attending the annual Memorial Day commemoration in Southborough this year. 

As a local clergy person, I’ve occasionally been asked to pray at the different stops as we honor those who’ve given their lives for our country. I more regularly attended as a Cub Scout Den Leader and then as a Scout Troop 92 Committee Member and dad of Boy—now Eagle—Scout. But this year I will not attend as an act of solidarity with those for whom the historic battle flags in the Old Burial Ground are hurtful, and I certainly could not offer prayers there.

Some may think this is an old issue, one we’ve dealt with before as a Town (see articles here and here). Others may be dismissive and accuse me of being “woke.” I am doing it simply because I am a Christian.

In my call as a disciple of Jesus, St. Paul encourages me to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.” I recognize that for our veterans, these battle flags mean a great deal. And I also know that for some in our community, the flags have become associated with groups who express hate towards them based on their skin color, how they worship, or where they are from.

Many who came to this country willingly came in order to avoid persecution and seek peace. For those who came unwillingly, they sought freedom and peace in their difficult lives here. Many Indigenous people welcomed newcomers with peace and shared knowledge of the land. What makes us all Americans is our desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as the Framers of our Nation put it. We share a desire for peace.

Men and women gave their lives for those ideals which are represented in our National Flag. While the battle flags rallied the troops who fought, none of those flags displaced the importance of the Stars and Stripes. When we gather to remember those who gave their lives, we should recall the cherished ideals for which they willingly died. Ideals of peace and not war. Of liberty for all and not oppression. Of life and not death.

Battle flags serve their purpose, but they are not the thing that unites us all. Our National Flag is. It is important to note that battle flags do not fly at our National Cemeteries. I cannot bear witness to the price paid by our veterans on Memorial Day under flags that divide us. Instead, I will offer prayers for the memory of our fallen heroes and prayers for peace at my home.

In closing, I offer a humble suggestion. Let us choose as a community to replace the battle flags in the Old Burial Ground with six historic American Flags, flags that all soldiers and our entire nation held sacred. These include the Grand Union flag, the Hopkinson flag, the Betsy Ross flag, the Cowpens flag, the Bennington flag, and the 15 star and 15 stripe “Star Spangled Banner” flag. All were in use during the first 20 years of our nation, fitting for both our Old Burial Ground and for the veterans who’ve given their lives for our country.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Phil LaBelle
Rector, St. Mark’s Church

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Rebecca Deans-Rowe
1 year ago

Thank you, Rev. LaBelle, for expressing this so eloquently.

There are many reasonable alternatives that are both unifying and historically appropriate. We could display a single American flag, a collection of more relevant flags respectfully placed, a plaque honoring all the Revolutionary War Veterans, or a series of “hometown hero” flags on telephone poles along Main Street.

My personal preference is to fly only the American flag. The Old Burial Ground is first and foremost intended to be a peaceful resting place. It is also our most important historical asset, and I would like all citizens to feel proud of how it is preserved.

Nancy Kolk
1 year ago

Thank you, Fr. Phil. I had voted to remove these flags when it was on the town meeting warrant. Removing these flags is not disrespecting the veterans, veterans fought under the flag of the United States of America. Let’s make Southborough a welcoming place, not a town where one can see flags that are linked to white supremacy groups.

John Kendall
1 year ago

I am posting this from my daughter Kerry. For the record, she was no slacker sitting in some American army post. She was a Captain with the 3rd Special Forces assigned to a forward operating base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. And yes, she carried a weapon and stood with her troops during firefights with the Taliban.

Dear Reverend Phil LaBelle,
 
To say that I am disappointed in your letter to the editor is an understatement. As a combat veteran from Southborough that served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Southborough’s 2022 Veterans Day Speaker, and this year’s ARHS Memorial Day speaker, I implore you to do better. You are opting to politicize the hallowed Memorial Day observance, a day in which the country asks its citizens to mourn with the fellow veterans who mourn the lives of those killed in service to their country. While I appreciate your attempt to unify the town over an issue, your actions alienate the veteran community. Your words may unify one group of people, they have come across as tone deaf to many others. You may not be able to bear witness to the price paid by our veterans under battle flags, however, I know of a Navy Veteran that paid the ultimate sacrifice while wearing the Gadsden Flag on his right sleeve, which remains an authorized uniform piece of the US Navy today.
 
To this, I ask the town to not tarnish the legacies of our servicemembers that were killed in combat, serving this country. Settle your political issues within the appropriate forum. Refusing to attend a Memorial Day Observance over a political issue only serves to continue to divide the town, while also estranging the veteran community. There are better options.
 
Kerry Kendall

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Karen Connell
1 year ago
Reply to  John Kendall

Dear Kerry Kendall,
Thank you for service to our country. Thank you too for reminding me of the true intent of this solemn holiday, to honor those who sacrificed their lives while serving the U.S. military.
Peace be with you,
Karen

Phil LaBelle
1 year ago
Reply to  John Kendall

Dear Capt. Kendall,
First, my deepest gratitude for your service to this nation and for the ideals that we all cherish. With veterans in my extended family, I know well the desire of our service members to stand and, if called, to defend the cause of freedom.
And I cannot know the impact of losing a friend serving alongside of you defending our country. He will certainly be remembered in my prayers on Monday.
While many will interpret my message as “political,” for me it is more than that. These flags have been used by purveyors of hate against citizens within our nation. Ignoring that impact and hurt on those sisters and brothers is not appealing to our better angels, as Abraham Lincoln put it. We as a town must do better.
While many of the more vociferous members of the community who agree with my desire to change or remove the flags will think I am on their “side,” I stand rather in the middle wanting all of us to understand that when any of us is hurting, we all should hurt with them. That the possible hurt and confusion experienced by our veterans in the willful absence of a clergy person this weekend is similar to the largely hidden pain by minority members of our community when they drive past the battle flags.
Again thank you for your dedication to our country. I have benefitted from your dedication and the dedication of all veterans, and that is not lost on me. And if you would be open to the chance to sit down over a coffee or a beer for deeper conversation, know that I welcome it.
Peace,
Phil LaBelle

Al Hamilton
1 year ago

Rev Labelle:
Last Tuesday the Select Board took 2 actions relative to the Old Burial Ground Flag Issue. First, it passed an Interim Flag Policy to be in place until Sept 30 2023. The policy essentially codifies the “Status Quo” which includes flying flags the that have been previously flown in the Old Burial Ground during this period. The need to have an official flag policy was made necessary by the Supreme Court Boston Flag Ruling.

Secondly, the Select Board also voted to form a committee to review and make recommendations to the Board on how we might update our displays of respect and appreciation to the Revolutionary War Veterans that lie under our care in the Old Burial Ground. This committee will be composed of veterans, members of the Historical Commission, and the general public. They are charged with making a recommendation to the Select Board before May 1 2024. If you would like to bring your flag proposal before this committee, I am sure it will generate lively discussion and receive full consideration.

While we have been squabbling about scraps of cloth it has come to my attention that we, as a community, have been negligent in our duty of care for the remains of our Revolutionary War Veterans. There are 27 Revolutionary War Veterans who lie in unmarked graves in the Old Burial Ground. I hope the committee will also make a recommendation on how to rectify this situation so that we may place a flag on Memorial Day in their honor and their names may not pass into obscurity.

On Friday at 6:00 p.m., in the Rural Cemetery, we will gather to place flags on the graves of veterans. Let us set aside, for a few moments, our petty disagreements, take a flag, place it in the holder, read the name of the veteran and reflect on their service and sacrifice that permits us to enjoy the liberties and freedom we enjoy. Let us do the same on Monday.
Al Hamilton

Last edited 1 year ago by Al Hamilton
Michael Weishan
1 year ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

The reporting date is actually September 2023, Al, and many of us, like the good Reverend, think this is about more than “just scraps of cloth” And if your idea of a “lively discussion” is another round of Kolenda and Co spewing false narratives and fake finger pointing while the five of you sit there nodding, I think we can all safely skip it. This is going to end very soon, as the town will get sued, and you will either have to let everyone put up flags, or no one. It would have been nice if the inaugural meeting of your board had shown some cojones and simply said: we are flying the flag of the United States, period. But hey, let’s waste more town time and legal dollars fighting another fight we are destined to lose.
Oh, and I will also add: finding unmarked graves should not be your priority. The OBG is literally falling to pieces as there has been no tree maintenance for over a decade. Every major storm drops heavy branches, which fall and destroy the memorials beneath. The Historical Commission has warned your board for years that the OBG needs a serious maintenance program and a long term replanting plan, but again a lot of talk and no action.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael Weishan
Al Hamilton
1 year ago

Michael
It may come as a shock but I agree with you about the State of the OBG and the need for maintenance.

The principle reason for adopting the interim flag policy was to make sure that the display in question now qualifies as “Government Speech” (in the inelegant words of the Supreme Court), as opposed to “Private Speech”. A case could have been made that prior to last Tuesday those flags were private speech. The court held that when the government speaks in its official capacity it is under no obligation to admit alternative views. When the government creates a forum for “Private Speech” it cannot discriminate against alternative views. Hopefully, having a policy, reduces our litigation risk.

I think that the spectacle of removing the flags 6 days before Memorial Day would be more as disturbing and disrespectful than flying them during the interim period. I know you disagree.

I would remind you that the proponents of the 2022 Town Meeting advisory article lost by a significant margin. Claims of vote packing are irrelevant. The only people who’s opinion counts are the ones that show up and vote. The proponents did not turn out a sufficient number and lost by a wide margin.

If you really think that the current board is a bunch of right wing sycophants, secretly manipulated by dark forces and unable to comprehend the majesty of your logic then I have a suggestion for you. Find candidates to run to replace us knuckle draggers.

Last edited 1 year ago by Al Hamilton
Michael Weishan
1 year ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

“If you really think that the current board is a bunch of right wing sycophants, secretly manipulated by dark forces and unable to comprehend the majesty of your logic then I have a suggestion for you. Find candidates to run to replace us knuckle draggers.” Seriously Al, is this going to be the current for the next three years.
Seriously Al. I spent 10 plus hours with you, standing in front of that school on election day, talking about the world.
You know that is not what I think.
What I DO think is: you five are a bunch of white people of a certain age, and your vote last week was spineless. You, personally have no idea, as an Ivy League straight white man of the upper. 5%, of what being part of a despised minority actually means. Or why these symbols, in your own hometown, might be even threatening.
Not even a clue.
But I do, as a gay man who has lived in Southborough for 31 years, one who has gladly payed property taxes that go mostly to schools my family will never benefit from, and who has given over two decades of public service to our town.
So how about let’s drop the drama, and do what you were elected to do. Govern.

Al Hamilton
1 year ago

Michael
I want to apologize for the last paragraph of my missive. It was unbecoming of someone in my new role.

You have a unique ability to press buttons and I will work to disconnect mine. Of course we will still disagree on most things.

On a different note, I did walk through the OBG today. There are a number of trees that are in bad shape. Some should be removed and some are in need of a major pruning. There are also a few that are magnificent. If some day you would like to walk through with me I would value your professional opinion on their care and maintenance.

Michael Weishan
1 year ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

lol Al, I think we share our button-pushing talent, because we both possess well honed communications skils and are not afraid to use them to speak truth to power. Or, at least, truth as we see it. But that’s what democracy is all about, isn’t it? “Stirring the pot” as some people put it, making sure the mixture is palatable to all, not just the tastes of demagogic few? Regarding the OBG, I would suggest you reach out to Sally at SHS and Kevin at the SHC and find a time for us to walk around the place. The first step is a survey of all existing trees, and an assessment of their condition. I’m happy to get you started, but you’ll need a professional outside consultant. Rolf Briggs comes immediately to mind out of Holliston. And time is short: the next major squall, hurricane or nor-Easter could irreparably damage dozens of stones. In the meantime, my sincere wishes for a peaceful and reflective weekend.

John Kendall
1 year ago

Michael, you’ve been stirring the pot since you moved to Southborough. It’s one thing you are very good at.

Michael Weishan
1 year ago
Reply to  John Kendall

Childish

John Kendall
1 year ago

Yes, you are. Your sexuality and whiteness have nothing to do with displaying flags

Phil LaBelle
1 year ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Mr. Hamilton,
Thank you for this update from our Select Board and the actions you are pursuing to find a solution. I welcome the opportunity to share my proposal with the committee members once they are selected.
This is certainly more than a squabbling over scraps of cloths simply because those scraps signify larger things. If not, we wouldn’t be having these conversations.
Please know that if I didn’t have a state track meet this evening for my daughter, I would be there with you planting flags and offering my prayers of thanks for their service and that they might rest in peace. As I stated before, I will not be able to be with those assembled on Monday.
Thank you for your work on behalf of our town.
Peace,
Phil LaBelle

Jim Foley
1 year ago

John thank you for sharing your daughter Kerry’s thoughts. She is a very impressive woman. I know you and your wife Leslie are very proud of her and rightfully so. I for one appreciate her service to our great country. Rev Labelle if you choose to stay home this Memorial Day because you can’t find it in your heart to join other patriotic towns people and honor the sacrifices of our veterans that’s your choice. I have to say I’m not impressed. As a man of the cloth you were asked to come out and pray for our fallen and you refused! That’s your choice but I personally am not sure how anyone would ask you to pray with them again after your refusal. I wish we could look for ways to come together and honor our fallen veterans instead of making stances to divide us. Thank you in advance to those who do come out and show their love and support. Sincerely Jim Foley

Phil LaBelle
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Foley

Mr. Foley,
Thank you for your response. Two things: 1) I was not asked to participate by the veterans this year, but rather have been asked in the past to do so and honored such requests. 2) I considered the potential cost before I sent in my letter and recognized this may be a result of my actions. While I hope it is not so, it is a cost I am willing to accept in order to bear witness to the pain experienced by others in our community.
Peace,
Phil LaBelle

Christopher Beasley
1 year ago

Rev. LaBelle, I appreciate your submission and your perspective on the flags. I’d also like to take this opportunity to share my views as a Veteran. I’m a retired Marine Corps Officer who grew up in Southborough and still have family in town. I can’t stand those flags flying in the Old Burial Ground (OBG). They are offensive on many levels and should be removed. Why isn’t our National Ensign enough? Why isn’t the national flag of their time, the Grand Union Flag or “The Betsy Ross Flag,” the symbol of their fledgling Nation enough? After all, these flags symbolize their fight and sacrifice’s underlying purpose: to carve out a new nation free from British rule. Today, our war dead don’t come home draped in the Gadsden Flag, their regimental colors, or their commander’s personal flag; they come home in our Nation’s colors. The colors of the Nation that made the solemn decision to send them across the globe to protect our way of life. Additionally, I don’t see those flags (the ones flying in the OBG today) when I visit Minuteman National Historical Park, they don’t fly in Lexington and Concord cemeteries, and I didn’t see those flags at my commissioning on the USS Constitution, so why do they fly in Southborough?
My larger point is that veterans are not a monolithic thought group, and we all need to be cautious not to lump all Veterans into the same camp just because we wore the cloth of our Nation. We’ve all had unique experiences, traveled to unique locations, and served with very different but incredible people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Most importantly, we don’t all choose to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice precisely the same. Some of us choose to march in parades, some visit public memorials and ceremonies, and some visit quiet corners of cemeteries to reflect on those who never came home. Please consider this when discussing Veterans’ matters, whether for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or any day in between. We’re all individuals and don’t always choose to honor our service and sacrifice in the same manner. Make an effort to reach all the veterans in town, not just the most vocal or the ones with the best Town Meeting attendance records.
I also encourage the town’s newly formed Flag Study Committee, the Historical Commission, and town citizens to properly research the veterans buried in the OBG. Find out who they are, where they’re from, and where they served. Seek guidance from professional organizations and government institutions to ensure we appropriately honor those interned in the OBG. Reach out to the National Cemetery at Bourne to discover proper protocols. Reach out to our sister towns in Massachusetts, like Lexington and Concord, to see how they honor their Revolutionary Era soldiers. Contact the Massachusetts Cemetery Association to ensure the town follows standard protocols for flag displays and Veterans’ grave markings. And why not reach out to the Sons of the Revolution to formally add our Southborough soldiers to their registry so their graves can be appropriately marked? 
I’d also like to clarify the wear of the Gadsden Flag on the US Navy Uniform. The Gadsden Flag is, in fact, not worn on the US Navy Uniform. Only the Rattlesnake Jack, in its subdued green and black or tan and brown colors, is worn on the Navy Working Uniform. 
Respectfully Submitted,
Chris Beasley

Carol Long
11 months ago

I agree with Mr. Beasley. Let there be one flag, our National Flag or none. The fact is, there are those buried in the OBG who did not serve in the military.

Carol Long
11 months ago
Reply to  Carol Long

Also, we already commemorate those who we know were veterans in the OBG (likely the Revolutionary War as is one of my forebears, an Onthank, with little U.S. flags on Memorial Day).

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