By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - Motorists traveling a major Virginia highway now have a second supersized Confederate flag to catch their attention, even though the first banner drew protests and debate.
The Virginia Flaggers, a group that celebrates the heritage of the Confederacy, raised the 20- by 30-foot (6- by 9-meter) battle flag on Saturday alongside Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, some 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) north of the state's capital of Richmond.
The group raised its first flag last year along the highway, immediately drawing complaints that it promoted racism and slavery, and leading 24,000 people to sign an online petition against its display.
"We have no problems with people who have different points of view, but we also want them to respect our views," said Barry Isenhour, a spokesman for the Flaggers.
The flag stirs strong emotions in Richmond, where African-Americans are the majority. The city, the former capital of the Confederacy, was the site of the nation’s second-largest slave market.
The Confederacy was formed in 1861, when seven Southern states permitting slavery seceded from the United States.
Isenhour said the new flag, which towers above the trees that line the highway, honors the approximately 250,000 Confederate soldiers who fought in battles near Fredericksburg. The flag is on private property and was funded by donations from around the country, he said, adding that the controversy surrounding the first flag increased donations to the group.
The Flaggers hope to erect more banners in Virginia and elsewhere in the future, and didn’t rule out placing yet another along the interstate, Isenhour said.
Jennifer McClellan, co-chair of the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, said the group is certainly within its rights to fly the Confederate flag, but added that to many, it symbolizes oppression of African-Americans throughout the nation’s history.
"For a lot of Virginians and a lot of Americans, it has a negative connotation," said McClellan, who is also a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. "It has been used by hate groups to promote their beliefs in white supremacy."
(Editing by Curtis Skinner and Jan Paschal)