ABBEVILLE, S.C. — Three people stood in line recently at the Southern Patriot Shop, Confederate flags tucked under their arms, waiting their turn to check out at the cash register.
Owner Robert Hayes, a 75-year-old with crow’s feet and a lingering smile, had a bit of advice for his customers before they headed back out into a world they say is drifting further and further away from the America they believed in.
“Don’t display them in your house but outside of your house,” Hayes said. “We need to be making a statement to the people that know their history and know that [the flag is] not what it’s being accused of.”
That sentiment is growing among many in this rural part of South Carolina and around the South. Many former supporters say they now understand why the flag should come down from its prominent perch in South Carolina’s capitol complex. But others, especially well outside of Columbia, are stunned at the turn on the flag after photos surfaced of alleged Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof posing with the flag.
Early Saturday, the flag came down briefly from the front of the statehouse after Bree Newsome, 30, a North Carolina educator and activist from Charlotte, scaled the 30-foot pole and detached it. She brought it down the pole and was arrested; authorities later re-raised the flag.
In Charleston, people gathered outside Emanuel AME Church, where a funeral was about to take place for one of the nine victims, had mixed reactions. Lowell Collins, 59, thought it was an inevitable part of efforts to remove the banner. “I’m surprised that it took this long,” said Collins, who lives in Falls Church, Va.
His friend Diane D. Gillie had concerns — that the act would disrupt momentum, and give flag supporters something to stand behind.
“I hope these kind of things don’t take away from the positive processes that are in place,” she said. Gillie, 58, works in Columbia, two blocks from the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds. She said she tries to ignore it when she walks past.
“I think there’s a place for it, and that’s a museum,” she said.
Later in the morning, about 50 people expressing support for the flag took their concerns to the state capitol, waving Confederate flags and chanting “Heritage not hate!” at passing cars.
Shannon Blume, a 36-year-old from the Columbia area, said at the protest she would push state leaders to put the issue to a statewide referendum. “It doesn’t stand for racism,” she said. “It stands for states’ rights and no big government.”
Southern politicians have lined up to say they disagree, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and others. In the emotional aftermath of the gunning down of nine people inside a church, including pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, state leaders have said that they can no longer ignore the pain the flag causes African Americans. Retailers Amazon and Wal-Mart have yanked Confederate-emblazoned wares and flags from physical and digital shelves.
In this part of rural South Carolina, seemingly a world away from the prying eyes of a shocked world, those seeking out new Confederate items said they will not be silent as the state and federal government continues to wage a war, in their words, on Southern heritage and history.
Hayes, a member of the League of the South, a pride organization considered by some to be a hate group, said he’ll probably benefit from the marketplace’s dearth of Confederate flags, although his store is about far more than making a buck. Confederate-themed knickknacks include phone covers, books, vests, lighters, shirts, stickers, bathing suits, pins, belts, magnets and postcards, plus dozens of historical flags.
Shoppers and Hayes said they were horrified and saddened by the shootings. But Hayes said that targeting the flag is the same as going after the Rice-A-Roni and ramen noodles that Roof reportedly ate.
“The blacks that say it’s racist — they are the racists,” said Joyce Davis Wareshoals, a 66-year-old from Abbeville. “That’s their heritage as much as it is our heritage.”
Hayes pulls out a well-worn manila folder. Inside are pictures of the Ku Klux Klan marching with U.S. flags over their shoulders.
“The U.S. flag, the U.S. flag, the U.S. flag!” Hayes said.
By the end of the day Thursday, Hayes said his shelves were nearly empty. He’d sold more than 100 flags — a store record, he said. “And we’re a little small, out-of-the-way town,” he said. His supplier also told him he was sold out and wouldn’t be able to deliver additional flags until the next week.
DeNeen Brown and Dan Morse in Charleston contributed to this report.