Support for the Confederate flag may be waning among Southern lawmakers after the Charleston, S.C., church shootings. But in Haralson County, Ga., and other places in the South, the flag remains a revered symbol, not only of the Confederate dead, but of a regional identity.
BUCHANAN, Ga. — Brandon Heath, Haralson County’s chief magistrate judge, flies the Confederate battle flag on his property. A version of it adorns the front bumper of his cherry-red Chevrolet pickup. It is painted on the wall of the gymnasium of his alma mater, Haralson County High School, where the sports teams are the Rebels and Rebelettes.
Like a number of people in this rural, working-class county — 92 percent white and just beyond the creep of Atlanta’s western suburbs — Heath believes that efforts to remove the flag from public spaces across the South are “plumb ridiculous.” And he insists his reverence for the banner has nothing to do with race.
“It’s just about where we come from, and locally here, we’re just real proud of that,” said Heath, 35, an auctioneer who, when not in court, favors camouflage ball caps and speaks with an unabashed country twang. “It’s all about your school, and your upraising, and who you are.”
Support for the Confederate flag may be waning among Southern lawmakers in the aftermath of the church shootings in Charleston, S.C. But here in this county of 29,000 people, as in many other stretches of the white, working-class South, the flag remains a revered symbol, not only of the Confederate dead, but of a unique regional identity.
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In Haralson County, a ragged patch of low hills and homesteads at the southern tip of Appalachia, it can seem like the battle flag is baked into the culture. One finds it displayed on the welcome sign in Buchanan, the county seat, as part of the seal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, alongside that of the Lions Club.
And while support for the flag is widespread here, its supporters, and their justifications, vary drastically: There are overt racists and avowed anti-racists; students of history and those who seem oblivious to it; ardent defenders of the Lost Cause and others who do not understand why the blue-spangled X on a red field — as ubiquitous here as deer stands, church steeples and biscuits with gravy — can be so controversial.
“I just don’t get why people are getting all mad about it,” said Corey Doyle, 19.
Doyle, who was recently hired as a car salesman, was standing the other day with five other white protesters on a grassy berm outside the local Wal-Mart, whose corporate office decided to pull Confederate merchandise from its shelves after the Charleston massacre.
The protesters waved the battle flag and an old version of the Georgia state flag. That state flag, which prominently incorporated the battle flag’s design, was introduced in 1956 by an arch-segregationist legislature as courts were ordering the South to integrate. It was replaced in 2001 by lawmakers more sensitive to Georgia’s image to outsiders.
Passing cars and trucks honked in solidarity.
Earnest Fryer, 28, an ice-cream-truck driver, was waving the old state flag. Asked about its segregationist origins, he drew a blank. To him, it was the flag his father had given him, and one that had long adorned the wall of his room, he said. Like Heath and Doyle, Fryer insisted his stand on the flag had nothing to do with matters of race.
“We don’t want to offend nobody,” Fryer said, noting that he was part Cherokee. Later, he said slavery was the “one thing that makes all the rest of my heritage look bad. But there’s a lot more about us than that one thing.”
And yet that one thing still looms disturbingly large.
At Kimball’s General Store, a popular meeting place in Buchanan, a man who declined to give his name blamed blacks for the new assault on the flag, and muttered a racial slur.
Near Heath’s office at the courthouse, a pickup parked beside a weatherworn house sported a pair of Confederate flags, and a window sticker that read “American Nazi Party.”
Just across the county line, the Georgia Peach Oyster Bar has operated as an open secret. Its website features two Confederate battle flags, the description, “The Original Klan, Klam & Oyster Bar,” and a stunningly virulent collection of racist signs. Patrons are confronted with crude cartoons and graffiti, and a menu that declares, on the appetizer page, “We cater to hangins’.”
Heath acknowledged the existence of such sentiments here. But he also noted this overwhelmingly white place, so committed to the flag, elected a black man, H. Allen Poole, as chairman of its Board of Commissioners in 2004, and has re-elected him twice.
Last year, voters elected the state’s first Asian-American Superior Court judge, Meng Lim, a Cambodian refugee who grew up in Haralson County.
“It’s complicated,” Heath said.
For Heath, the flag helped get him elected in 2008, when he bounced around the county’s rural back roads in his pickup, hunting for votes. The battle flag was affixed to the front bumper. A 12-gauge shotgun was in the gun rack, and an old bloodhound was in the back.
It was all part of a package that validated Heath’s regular-guy credentials and bolstered his argument that the magistrate court would be better run by a good old boy with a high-school diploma than by the lawyer who was the incumbent at the time.
Heath saw it as an appeal to a common culture, not a racial gesture, a way to show voters he was one of them: conservative, Republican (the county went 81 percent for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election) and, as he said, “salt of the earth.”
On a recent weekday morning, Heath gave a brief tour of Haralson County, starting with Hutcheson’s Memorial Chapel and Crematory, where he introduced the owner, Danny Hutcheson, the county coroner.
Hutcheson sat in a backroom that was decorated with political and historical memorabilia, including a picture of an ancestor who, according to family legend, was robbed of his cattle by Yankee soldiers during the Civil War.
He says he does not display the flag for fear of upsetting his black friends and clients. But he defends those who do.
“We’ve got a cross in our church,” Hutcheson said. “The Ku Klux Klan burns crosses in people’s yards. Does that mean we should take the crosses out of our churches?”
Heath drove on to the high school where the trophy room of the gym features the battle flag painted on the wall.
Such displays have caused trouble here in the past. In September 2000, someone painted over a flag at the gym, and students were allowed to vote on whether to repaint it. Repainting won by a vote of 861 to 150, according to news reports at the time. A group of black football players threatened to boycott a game, but that never materialized.
It all seemed perplexing to Cain Jackson, a 22-year-old graduate, who is white. “I don’t see how it’s racist to anybody,” he said.
Later, Heath paid a visit to Poole, the chairman of the county commission.
Poole, a Republican, said Southern governors were wrong to take the battle flag down. He noted that he, too, had graduated from Haralson County High School in 1974, and had played safety and outside linebacker on the football team.
“I was a Rebel,” he said, “for four years.”
But not everyone is so comfortable. Angelica Griffin is also an African American and played sports at the high school. She said she was “terrified” to criticize the flag while she was there.
Griffin, 28, recently completed law school at DePaul University in Chicago and is studying for the bar exam. After the Charleston shootings, she said, she posted her displeasure with the flag on social media, sparking debate and pushback from white friends back home.
“People were so apt to defend it, without even thinking about other people and how that flag makes them feel,” she said.
But Griffin also spoke about the time, in 2008, when her mother lost her job. White Haralson County neighbors showered her mother with money and gift cards so that she could afford to drop her off at college.
“You know what? It doesn’t make sense,” Griffin said. “It’s the great conundrum of the South.”