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A flag is, of course, just a piece of cloth. We are the ones who turn it into something more than cotton or polyester. Since the June 18 massacre at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, however, America has been doing some soul searching over the Confederate flag, the most enduring symbol of the Confederacy.
Soon after the arrest of the alleged killer, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof, a website was found featuring a racist manifesto and multiple photos of Roof posing with his pistol and the Confederate battle flag. Within the week, Alabama and other Southern states had furled the Confederate flags that flew over their Capitol grounds, and giant retailers like Walmart, Amazon and eBay said they would no longer sell items bearing the well-known image. In Arkansas, there is a growing call to remove the fourth and highest star in the center of the Arkansas state flag, which represents our membership in the Confederacy.
In Central Arkansas, for now, a good bit of the controversy over the Confederate flag seems to have settled on the doorstep of Little Rock's Arkansas Flag and Banner. The business is located at 800 W. Ninth St. in Taborian Hall, whose storied Dreamland Ballroom once hosted some of America's greatest African-American entertainers before urban renewal efforts and the construction of Interstate 630 destroyed most of the city's black business district along Ninth. The Arkansas chapter of the NAACP held a protest there over the weekend, demanding that Arkansas Flag and Banner stop selling the flag.
Dale Charles, the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, said the Confederate battle flag symbolized the fight to preserve slavery and should be consigned to the museums. "If you know [slavery was] wrong," Charles said, "why would you want to continue to keep that as the symbol of your history? You should be ashamed of it and try to get rid of it."
Asked what he says to people who say the Confederate flag is about history, not hate, Charles said that the two ideas weren't mutually exclusive. "History can be hate. History is hate in a lot of instances," he said. "In this case, it is hate. It is about history. But it's a dark history that should not be continued and should not be celebrated. History belongs in museums. Not out on cars, and not out on state capitol grounds."
In speaking about the controversy, Charles noted a terrible coincidence. In 1957, six women and three men integrated Little Rock's Central High School. The same number, six women and three men, died in Charleston. Charles said that while Walmart, eBay, Amazon and others have the right to continue selling the flag, their move to stop selling it is a hopeful sign.
"They have the right," he said. "But somebody made the decision to say, 'I will no longer continue to make a profit, like the South did off of slaves, with something that is inhumane, that is wrong, that dehumanized a group of people.' " Asked if the Little Rock NAACP will continue its campaign to get Flag and Banner to stop selling the flag, Charles said that while he didn't want to telegraph its next move, last week's press conference was "the first step."
Sericia Cole, director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, said she believes it's time to consign the Confederate battle flag to museums, where it can be put into the context of history. Speaking for herself and not on behalf of the museum, Cole said that the flag is a symbol that still has power, especially for African Americans. When she sees a Confederate flag on a car or on a flagpole, it doesn't bring to mind history. Her first reaction is that the person who is displaying it would not want to talk to an African American.
"I know there are some people who say that it's just a symbol," she said. "But symbolism has a great effect on our psyche. It creates a visceral reaction for people, a palpable reaction, and those reactions are usually negative for African Americans."
Cole said that after an event like the murders in Charleston, it's important for the nation to begin to talk about the issues at hand. While African Americans have been largely silent until now about their feelings about the Confederate flag, Cole said, "if you really listen to them, you know it's more than just a piece of cloth. It symbolizes something hateful and hurtful and painful in history. We're trying to move forward. If we're trying to move forward, let's move forward with symbols that are more positive and indicative of our desire to be in solidarity with one another as Americans."
Speaking before the NAACP protest, Arkansas Flag and Banner owner Kerry McCoy said that before the controversy over the flag, sales of Confederate flags and associated items were "not even 1 percent of 1 percent of their sales," with its biggest seller being Confederate flag bikinis. Since the flag started coming down, however, McCoy said she had sold more Confederate flags than she had in the past 10 years. She believes that most of the sales are just about people wanting what seems forbidden.
"We've had several people call and say, 'I don't even care about the Confederate flag, but when somebody tells me I can't have it, I want one. I'm just buying it to put in a closet,' " she said. "As soon as you say you can't have it, everybody wants it. It's crazy, but that's just human nature."
McCoy said that those trying to see the flag banned were ignoring the real issue. In the photos of killer Dylann Storm Roof, she notes, he's got a gun in one hand and a flag in the other. "It's not the flag that killed those people. It's the gun that killed them," she said. "If we want to talk about something, we need to talk about the gun that killed those people. How does a nut end up with a gun? I don't know the answer."
While McCoy says she thinks it's fine for large retailers like Walmart and Amazon to take a stand and stop selling Confederate flag items, Arkansas Flag and Banner is a small business and a specialty store. Selling items that can't be purchased elsewhere is what specialty stores do, she said.
"I specialize in a certain product line," she said. "This is my product line. ... I'm not here for censorship. I'm not a politician, and I'm not here to judge. I also sell the gay pride flag. I get plenty of hate mail about the gay pride flag. I can't judge anybody."
In addition to the familiar Confederate battle flag, Arkansas Flag and Banner also sells a half-dozen historic flags related to the Civil War, including the Bonnie Blue Flag, the campaign headquarters flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee; and the first, second and third national flags that flew over the Confederacy during its existence. McCoy says that she tries to steer those seeking the Confederate battle flag to other, more historic flags. She says that while she hates that the Confederate flag has been adopted by hate groups and has become a symbol of racism, the flag also serves as a reminder of those who perished in the Civil War.
"That flag is a symbol of our history, and if you don't remember history, everybody knows it will repeat itself," she said. "You don't want to go back to making the same mistakes as before. But we can remember the thousands of people in the South and in the North who gave their lives for their flags."