When Anna Robb learned Tuesday morning that Walmart would no longer sell products bearing the Confederate symbol, she wasn’t upset. After all, every time another retailer pulls those products, her business — Dixie Outfitters in Branson — grows.
What is upsetting to Robb, though, is the reason.
Walmart, along with Sears, Amazon and eBay, announced bans on Confederate flag products amid the growing nationwide debate over the symbol. And Valley Forge Flag, one of the biggest flag makers in the U.S., announced it will stop manufacturing and selling Confederate flags.
The controversy emerged last week after the world learned about the strident racism of 21-year-old Dylann Roof, charged with gunning down nine people attending a bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. A photo on his website showed him casually resting a small Confederate flag onto his shoulder.
“When something like this happens, people are always looking for something to blame. It’s easy to grab a hold of the flag and say, ‘Oh, it’s the flag,’ or ‘Oh, it’s the gun,’ ” Robb said. “The guy was an idiot… He is to blame for this, not the flag.
“Our customers are hardworking, red blooded Americans that understand the history of the Confederate flag. They are not haters or anything like that,” she said. “They are proud of their country and proud of what the Confederate flag represents. It has nothing to do with the slavery issue.”
Southern culture, heritage and way of life — that’s what the Confederate symbol represents, Robb said.
Cheryl Clay, president of the NAACP Springfield branch, disagrees.
“I think it represents a horrible period in our nation’s history,” she said. “The flag represents the state of South Carolina seceding from the U.S. What is heritage about that? That they would rather leave a nation so they could keep people enslaved? That has nothing to do with heritage. It has everything to do with cultural ideology of slavery.”
“When I see a Confederate flag, I just cringe inside. What does it represent to me? A period of hatred,” she said. “Systemic racism is alive and well in our country, intersecting with all aspects of our lives.”
Dr. William Piston has taught Civil War and military history at Missouri State University for 27 years and also happens to be an avid vexillologist (someone who studies flags).
According to Piston, Robb’s and Clay’s differing viewpoints are the crux of the Confederate symbol debate.
“Anyone can take a Confederate flag and display it, and it means whatever they say it means to them,” Piston said. “But a persons’ reaction to a symbol may or may not be the reaction the person who is displaying the symbol intended. That is really the problem.”
Piston said there will always be tension between freedom of speech and reactions to that speech.
“I think the important thing to point out is that for African Americans, their reaction since the Civil War ended to the display of the Confederate symbol has been negative and understandably so,” he said. “The flag has certainly been used over time by a number of racist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.”
Piston said he tries to be courteous “sensitive to the fact that there are symbols that people find deeply offensive.”
Should South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from its state capitol grounds? Take our poll.
On Tuesday, protesters rallied at South Carolina’s statehouse to ask legislators to make good on South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s vow to remove the Confederate battle flag from it’s place on the Statehouse grounds, where it has stood since legislators removed it in 2000 atop the Capital dome.
In Missisippi, citizens started a petition to erase the stars-and-bars image from the state flag of Mississippi. And in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed to pull it as choice of emblem on vehicle license plates — a step allowable since a recent Supreme Court ruling found that it was not protected speech.
—USA Today contributed to this story.