By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - The commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans says he fails to understand the wave of hostility directed at the Confederate flag following the massacre of nine black people at a South Carolina church last month.
"I’ll use the words of Jefferson Davis: ‘We just want to be left alone,’” Charles Kelly Barrow said on Wednesday, quoting the man who served as the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War of 1861-65.
Barrow and about 1,000 members of his organization were in Richmond, Virginia, this week for the 120th national reunion of the SCV, formed in 1896 and open to male descendants of Confederate soldiers. Richmond is the former capital city of the Confederacy.
The massacre at the Charleston church sparked a national debate over the display of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the pro-slavery Confederacy. Photos of the white suspect posing with the flag have galvanized critics and led South Carolina to stop flying it on the State House grounds.
"They want to remove our flags, the names on our streets, our monuments," Barrow said in an interview, referring to pressure to take down statues and rename streets named after Confederate heroes such as Jefferson Davis.
"We're in a country that's supposed to be tolerant, and suddenly they're targeting our culture," he said. "I can't wait to wake up from this nightmare."
His comments followed a ceremony in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery to honor a Pennsylvania doctor who in the 1870s exhumed the remains of thousands of Confederate soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg and shipped them back to Southern states.
About 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried in Hollywood, many of them in an area called Gettysburg Hill, where small Confederate flags fluttered among the tombstones.
Davis, along with U.S. Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, also are buried in Hollywood.
Barrow said he had seen no protests at this year's convention, which runs through the end of the week.
Following the South Carolina shootings, some of Richmond’s Confederate monuments were defaced, and some people called for taking down Confederate statuary along Monument Avenue, the city's most famous thoroughfare.
Dwight Jones, its African-American mayor, disagrees and has instead called for more monuments recognizing heroes from other eras. He pointed to African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe’s statue on Monument Avenue as a step in the right direction.
Last month, Democratic Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe called for removing Confederate flags from state-issued license plates. Jones and many other black officials applauded the decision.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Beech)