A country and western music venue in Scotland, nearly 4,000 miles and 150 years removed from the Civil War, voted this week to end its controversial display of the Confederate flag.
Until recently, a night of live music at the Grand Ole Opry in Glasgow, a members’ club that holds public events, would end with what it described as a salute to the war’s dead and a ceremonial folding of the Confederate battle flag, which to many in the United States and abroad is a symbol of white supremacy.
After years of rising tension, the club’s leadership announced last month that it would ban the flag’s display, a move that exploded into a rift among the organization’s 200 or so members, most of whom are white and Scottish.
During an emergency meeting on Monday, they voted, narrowly and by secret ballot, to uphold the decision banning the flag, 50-48.
The flag had been displayed in the club, which offers live music, line dancing and a saloon bar, since it opened in 1974, more than a century after the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy forces.
Chris McDowell, the club secretary at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, said that efforts to remove the flag had been ongoing for a few years. Visitors had often been unhappy to see the flag on display, Ms. McDowell said, which had resulted in verbal incidents as well as the cancellations of some bookings and events.
Among the cancellations was The National Theater of Scotland, which does not have a building of its own and tours around the country.
“Unfortunately due to the displaying of the Confederate Flag at the venue we have withdrawn our interest,” the theater group said in October, adding that going ahead with a show there would be “inappropriate and insensitive to our audiences, artists and arts workers.”
Despite the criticism, last year, the flag survived another effort to remove it and replace it with a specially-designed one after a show of hands at a meeting signaled support, Ms. McDowell said.
In the United States, multiple states have banned the display of the Confederate flag, a symbol of the segregated South and of white supremacy. New York State, for example, banned the sale or display of the flag as a symbol of hate in 2020. That same year, the U.S. Marine Corps issued the removal and banning of public displays of the Confederate flag at Marine installations. On Jan. 6, 2021, as protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the image of one of them carrying the flag through the building was an especially unnerving sight for many Americans.
The ceremony in which the Confederate flag is shown is described by the club as a tribute to those who died during the war. It is one of two regularly held during a night at the Grand Ole Opry in Glasgow, according to the club’s website, the other involving the Mexican flag and meant to honor of those who died in the 1836 battle of the Alamo.
The club’s website says the club uses the Confederate flag “due to the fact that this part of America supplied us then, as now, with most of the trends that influence our music, dress and dance.”
Country music and Confederate imagery have long been intertwined. The same year the Glasgow Opry opened, in 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd released the southern rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama,” and regularly performed it with the Confederate flag as a backdrop.
But the industry has also shifted in recent years. In 2015, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers denounced the flag in an essay, calling it divisive. By 2020, amid the racial justice protests that swept the United States after the killing of George Floyd, other artists were dropping Confederate iconography: The Dixie Chicks became The Chicks, and Lady Antebellum had become Lady A. Last year, the Country Music Association decided to ban any Confederate flag imagery at its annual festival.
Baylen Leonard, a country music radio host who moved to Britain two decades ago and is originally from Tennessee, said the genre has been consistently growing in popularity in the U.K. Part of the appeal for people outside of the United States, he said, was “an element of cosplay.”
“There’s an element of escapism for people,” he said. “It’s about taking a whole different kind of persona even if it is just for one night.”
That might explain the Confederate flag’s persistence in the club, he said, but added that he was against the display of the flag in any way. “I think everybody knows that that’s a symbol of hate,” he said.
On the Glasgow Grand Ole Opry Members & Friends Facebook page this week, the debate has continued to unfold, with some people expressing their hesitation of going to a venue where the Confederate flag is readily displayed, and others defending it as tradition.
Among the division, there seems to be agreement on one thing: the members enjoy going to the Grand Ole Opry.
That includes Fionna Downie, who said she has been going to the club roughly every week for the last 30 years. Ms. Downie, who wanted to keep the flag displayed, said its removal is one more thing chipping away at what she described as the club’s unique character.
“How many more of the club’s traditions are going to be trashed?” she said, adding that the Union Jack, the British flag, “has a checkered history but is still widely displayed here and abroad without dissent.”
Ms. McDowell, the club secretary, said she planned to return to the club on Friday night for the first time since the contentious vote to uphold the ban. She said she felt “wonderful” over the flag’s removal, saying that everyone who enters the Grand Ole Opry should feel welcome.
“The flag has been taken down,” she said, “and we look forward to the club moving on.”