Many Americans assumed the Confederate flag was retired for good after governors in South Carolina and Alabama removed it from their statehouses this summer and presidential candidates from both parties declared it too divisive for official display.
But people still fly it, and not just in the South, despite announcements by leading flag-makers and retailers that they will no longer sell products showing the secessionist battle flag.
Some who display it are motivated by pride in their ancestry or enthusiasm for Southern history. Others see it as a symbol of their right to challenge to authority in general, and the federal government in particular. And some have hoisted Confederate flags in recent weeks precisely because it’s generating controversy again.
“You can’t take it out on the flag – the flag had nothing to do with it,” said Ralph Chronister, who felt inspired to dig out his old Confederate flag, which is decorated with a bald eagle, and hang it from his weather-beaten front porch on a heavily traveled street in Hanover, Pa.
“I’ve got nothing against black people; I’ve got nothing against anyone else,” said Chronister, 46, who was raised in Maryland. “I’m just very proud of my Southern heritage. That’s why I fly it.”
An uncomfortable tolerance of the Confederate flag in mainstream society was upended in June when photos circulated on the Internet revealing that a young white racist charged with killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, had posed with the Confederate symbol. Dylann Roof also burned a U.S. flag for good measure.
John Russell Houser – the right-wing extremist who shot 11 people, two of them fatally, before killing himself in a Louisiana movie theater in July – also flew a large Confederate flag outside his home, and hung a Nazi swastika banner outside a bar he owned in Georgia.
Many politicians echoed South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag after the Charleston killings, describing it as a relic that belongs in museums but not on official display. Haley called it “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said “it shouldn’t fly anywhere.”
Hundreds of Confederate flag wavers gathered this weekend in Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park, home to the huge “Confederate Memorial Carving” featuring Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
But the flags aren’t hard to find in places like Hanover, a factory and farm community about six miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line that saw action during the Civil War’s Gettysburg campaign.
One flies from a pole on the main road into town, by a National Rifle Association banner. Another was hung from a second-floor apartment, directly above a day-care downstairs.
I know there’s things that happened to slaves and things. I can’t control what other people have done. What’s the next flag that someone is going to say, ‘We don’t like that flag, let’s take that one down?’
Jeremy Gouge, a 44-year-old roofer in Hanover, Pa.
Jeremy Gouge, a 44-year-old roofer, says family ties to the South are why he proudly flies a Confederate battle flag on a pole in his front yard, on a quiet residential street not far from Chronister’s home.
“I know there’s things that happened to slaves and things. I can’t control what other people have done,” Gouge said. “What’s the next flag that someone is going to say, ‘We don’t like that flag, let’s take that one down?’”
It’s hardly the only place where Confederate flags fly in northern states. Hannah Alberstadt said she was surprised to see many of them in her hometown of Girard in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My town has always had sort of a hickish contingent, but it’s like every other day I see another Confederate flag, and it’s just shocking,” she said. “These people are definitely trying to make a statement because people have them waving from their truck beds, people have them on a stick in their front yards, people are wearing them to the grocery store.”
The symbol still raises ire: A flag on the back of a pickup truck parked in a convenience store lot in the middle of Hanover was set on fire. And in Elk Grove, Calif., a Confederate flag was displayed at a gun shop until the owners removed it in late June after getting death threats.
In Las Vegas, Republican state assemblywoman Michelle Fiore sent out a campaign email comparing South Carolina’s removal of the flag to avoiding discussion of concentration camps and genocide. People can’t “pick and choose what parts of our history you want to remember,” Fiore said.
In eastern Michigan, flag supporters staged a rolling rally, with more than 50 vehicles participating. And in Florida, an estimated 2,000 vehicles adorned with the Confederate battle flag rallied outside a government complex in Ocala, with many demonstrators sporting shirts with phrases like “heritage not hate.”
On Thursday, surveillance cameras recorded two white men leaving Confederate battle flags on the grounds of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. began his campaign for racial justice a half-century ago. The Rev. Raphael Warnock called it a “hateful act” and an “effort to intimidate us in some way.”
The condemnations have been good for the business of Robert Hayes, who runs the Southern Patriot Shop in Abbeville, S.C.
A sign outside his shop warned customers he’d sold out of Confederate flags and may be out for a month or more. Hayes figures he sold about 400 after the Charleston shooting, instead of the two dozen or so he typically sells. And the purchasers seem different to him now.
If they want to get offended, that’s their problem. I fly it for my own reasons. It’s got nothing to do with hate for anybody. My boss is black. I work for two black guys. I have this tag; I pull up for work every day. It doesn’t bother them.
Carson Kimsey, Elbert County, Ga., resident
Teens are buying it as a rebellious counter-culture statement against political correctness, Hayes said, and others talk of taking a stand against big government and holding fast to what they hold dear.
Carson Kimsey, 23, came to Hayes’ shop hoping for a flag to fly outside his Elbert County, Ga., home. Kimsey gave a few different answers about the Confederate flag license plate on his pickup truck, then looked down for a second when asked if he ever thinks about how blacks feel when they see it.
“If they want to get offended, that’s their problem. I fly it for my own reasons. It’s got nothing to do with hate for anybody. My boss is black. I work for two black guys. I have this tag; I pull up for work every day. It doesn’t bother them,” Kimsey said, though he acknowledged he never has broached the topic with them.
The Confederate flag still flies outside two biker bars near the home that Angela Burns, a black woman, rents on Dixie Drive in Anderson County, S.C., where five of the six state representatives voted against removing it from the State House.
Burns, 54, shrugs off the rebel banners sprouting up since then.
“You ignore it after a while. I’m not letting them bother me,” she said. “But every one of them knows they are being mean and ugly.”
Collins reported from Abbeville, S.C.