Mary Norman, president of Auburn Heritage Association, said she was at her family's burial plot in Pine Hill Cemetery when Councilman Arthur Dowdell removed the small Confederate flag from her great-grandfather's grave Thursday afternoon.
"He pulled up the flag, snapped it in two and put it in his car," said Norman, who is white.
Dowdell said Friday he did not break the flag's stick intentionally. Instead, it broke when he pulled it out of the ground. But, he said, "I should have broken them all. They are offensive to me. They represent racism and the Ku Klux Klan."
Dowdell, who was elected to the City Council in 1995, said he was motivated to act when he went to pick up his daughter Thursday afternoon from her school near the cemetery. He said some parents complained to him about small Confederate battle flags being on graves throughout the cemetery in downtown Auburn.
Dowdell said he drove to the cemetery and saw it decorated "like a Klan rally or a skinhead rally."
"It's intimidating to black folks, and it's intimidating to me as a civil rights leader," he said. Dowdell said he pulled up four flags and left.
Norman, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said other UDC members placed the flags on the graves of Confederate veterans because Sunday is the official day for Confederate Memorial Day and Monday is the state holiday for it. She said the flags marked the graves of 75 known Confederate soldiers in the cemetery and a monument for 98 unidentified Confederate soldiers also buried there.
She said putting the flags on the graves of Confederate veterans for a few days around Confederate Memorial Day has nothing to do with race or hatred. "This has been a tradition in Auburn for over 100 years," she said.
Mayor Bill Ham Jr. said the city of more than 43,000 residents had never had any problems with previous Confederate Memorial Day observances. "This was a shocker," he said.
Ham said he was troubled that anyone would remove an item from a grave without permission. He said he had received more than 20 phone calls about the removal by Friday afternoon and all were opposed to what was done.
Norman said she and a friend were in the cemetery doing research for a book about the historic burial ground when Dowdell pulled up the flags. Her friend took a photo of him leaving the cemetery with the flags.
"I don't think you can go and desecrate graves, and he desecrated graves," she said.
Dowdell said other city cemeteries have restrictions on what can be placed on graves, but Pine Hill Cemetery does not. He said he will ask the City Council to pass an ordinance allowing the flags for only 24 hours on Confederate Memorial Day and requiring a sign explaining their presence.
"We don't have anything like those flags flying four days before Martin Luther King Day. We celebrate it on that day," he said.
Can this asshole be recalled, or maybe fired? What gives him the right to desecrate these graves?