SPERRYVILLE, VIRGINIA - At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery.

Even though the Confederacy lost the war, Cooter’s customer, Anna Gross, believes the flag is an important symbol of the south’s heritage.

‘It’s part of our ancestors who lived through it and fought for it,” she said emotionally.

Her 18-year-old grandson, Jordan Hutchinson, wears a necklace embossed with images of the flag, and said his bedroom is full of Confederate memorabilia.

“I see it as part of history. It’s American history,” he said.

Competing views

But the flag’s opponents call it a symbol of hate, stemming from black oppression in the South.

Margery Goldberg, curator of an American flag art exhibit in Washington, said proponents of the flag “pretend that it was not about slavery. It was about slavery. It was an ugly part of the United States history.”   

After nine people were killed in a South Carolina church by a gunman who allegedly hated blacks and embraced the Confederate battle flag, it was removed from the grounds of the state capital, and other sites around the country where it flew.

Another Cooter’s customer, Donna Carol, thinks it was “horrible” that South Carolina took down the flag.  

But after the killings, major retailers in the U.S. stopped selling the flag and merchandise with its image. Some other businesses are continuing to sell them, including Cooter’s, where owner Ben Jones is an outspoken proponent. 

He said the “over-reaction to the Confederate flag stifles freedom of expression. You take one flag down, we will put two up.”

Jones is quick to point out that he’s no racist — he grew up in a poorer, predominately black neighborhood in southern Virginia and took part in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

He is also a former U.S. Democratic Georgia Congressman, who played a mechanic named Cooter in the popular 1980s TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard.  

Memorabilia, memories

His store carries memorabilia from the show and souvenirs, like keychains, hats and belts — many with Confederate flags. Out front sits a replica of the famous car from the series, with its distinctive Confederate flag painted on the roof. The “General Lee,” as the car was called, is named after Robert E. Lee, the commander of the southern army.  

Reruns of the show were canceled in the U.S. after the church shooting. Customer Michael Karnes thinks it’s a backlash against the flag.

“The TV show was a great TV show and it was nothing about racism,” he said. “It was just a good, wholesome fun show.”

Jones has several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and is a national spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said the flag should not be erased from history because of racists and “one sick, evil person” who “misused” it.

“It doesn’t represent the 80 million of us who are descended from the Confederacy,” he said. “That person desecrated our flag.”

Divisive symbol

He thinks the flag is being used as a scapegoat to take “advantage of the shock and grief of that terrible incident to create a hysteria to culturally cleanse our culture.”

But opponents say the flag is not about culture, that it represents black oppression and should come down everywhere.

Rob Hall, a visitor at the American flag art exhibit, who said he was raised in the south, believes, “It’s most important that we stay together as one country and salute one flag and not think about being divisive in any way.”

However, Gross thinks the Confederate flag should not go by the wayside.

“I don’t know if they’re going to make it a law that none of us can have a flag around,” she said, insisting, “But you know what? We can still have it inside our homes.”

Goldberg maintains the flag, however, should go where it came from — in the past — and just be buried “in a museum.”