After right-wing protesters carried Confederate flags, GOP senator’s mask draws ire

Zorn apologized after initially defending flag

Conservative protest at Michigan's Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Michigan Advance

A Republican state senator wore a protective mask during a rare Friday session that appeared to have a Confederate flag design on it. That was while the Republican-led Legislature met to attempt to yank emergency powers from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to show their unhappiness with her actions to stop the spread of COVID-19.  

Dale Zorn

Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore the mask, but denied to WLNS-TV in Lansing — while wearing a plain blue mask — that the other mask was of the Confederate flag. 

“I told my wife it probably will raise some eyebrows, but it was not a Confederate flag,” Zorn said Friday.

Garlin Gilchrist, the first African-American lieutenant governor in Michigan history, presided over the chamber Friday.

Zorn said the mask design was of a Kentucky or Tennessee flag. However, WLNS showed those flags, which bear little resemblance to the Confederate flag or the mask.

In that interview, Zorn also defended the Confederate flag, calling it a part of American history, and shrugged off criticism.

“Even if it was a Confederate flag, you know, we should be talking about teaching our national history in schools and that’s part of our national history and it’s something we can’t just throw away because it is part of our history,” Zorn said. “And if we want to make sure that the atrocities that happened during that time doesn’t happen again, we should be teaching it. Our kids should know what that flag stands for.”

Zorn didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request from the Advance for comment, but he did issue an apology on Twitter Saturday morning after several of his Democratic colleagues criticized his decision.

Civil rights leaders rip Lansing protest for ‘racist undertones’

A spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) did not respond to a request for comment or if he planned to take any action against Zorn. 

Last year, Shirkey compared abortion to slavery and declined to apologize.

“In my mind, it’s comparable – and people are going to be very upset when I say this – but it is comparable to the scourge we endured when we still had slavery in this country. It is no less a scourge today than … slavery was then,” Shirkey said in a November radio interview.

The Confederate flag was used during the U.S. Civil War by southern slave-owning states, including Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia. Because of its connection to slavery, it is largely considered offensive to African Americans. Michigan troops fought on the side of the Union.

In 2015, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations fought to have the Confederate flag removed from the state capitol grounds in South Carolina. 

Shirkey offers no apology for comparing abortion to slavery in radio interview

Closer to home, the flag was also displayed by several participants last week during the “Operation Gridlock” protest at the state Capitol in Lansing. The right-wing rally was held to oppose Whitmer’s stay-home order, but largely turned into a pro-President Trump event attended by groups including the Michigan Militia and Proud Boys. 

African Americans have contracted and died from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates, as the Advance previously reported. In Michigan, Blacks are roughly 14% of the population, but they make up 33% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of deaths. Attorney General Dana Nessel noted that issue on Twitter in blasting Zorn’s mask. 

“One of those days when you ask yourself why the MI Legislature doesn’t seem to care about the massively disproportionate number of African-Americans dying from #Covid19, then you notice a senator wearing a confederate flag mask in the chamber and everything suddenly makes sense,” Nessel wrote.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) tweeted: “At a time when tensions are high and Michiganders are dying, this is a terrible distraction from the conversations we are having about how to save more lives.”

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who is Black, called Zorn “entirely wrong” and pointed out that the Confederate flag was used by Southern whites during the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and ‘60s to fight against racist Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from voting.  

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) agreed with Nessel and Geiss and tweeted: “The Confederate flag should never be worn, especially by an elected official.”

Irwin’s tweet was shared by his Senate colleagues Stephanie Chang and Betty Alexander, both Detroit Democrats.  

On Saturday morning, Zorn reversed himself in two tweets, writing, “I did not intend to offend anyone; however, I realize that I did, and for that I am sorry. Those who know me best know that I do not support the things this pattern represents.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.