A former Alabama state senator has sparked controversy after removing small Confederate flags decorating graves at an old Confederate cemetery in his home county.

Attorney Myron Penn has drawn praise and criticism for his actions. He’s also gotten death threats, WSFA-TV reported Saturday.

“The reason why we picked them up is because the image of the flags in our community, a lot of people feel that they’re a symbol of divisiveness and oppression of many people in our community,” Penn told the station.

He brought the Southern Cross stick flags to the city hall in Union Springs. Penn was Bullock County’s first black elected commission chairman, according to a local newspaper.

Union Springs resident Rebecca Atkins said removing the flags shows disrespect for the dead, particularly soldiers who died for the Confederacy.

“It’s not about race or the flag or anything else,” she said. “It’s about decency and respect for the dead.”

The city of Union Springs owns and maintains the inactive cemetery.

The mayor Saint Thomas Jr. told WSFA that a group not from Union Springs placed the flags at the cemetery’s graves without authorization.

“Something happened that should not have happened,” Thomas said. “The group who put them down should have asked for permission from the city council."

The station said a group called the Defenders of the Cross is planning a protest in Union Springs in June.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.