Between the rebel yells, incessant car horns, the hollow thump of counter-protesters’ homemade drums and the growl of revving motorcycle engines, someone sang “the Star-Spangled Banner.” You could barely hear it.
Shortly afterward, at the “Taking Back Orange County” rally in Hillsborough on Saturday afternoon, the 300 or so Confederate flag-draped attendeesabout 700 fewer than expectedsang a raucous round of “Dixie,” a wistful paean to the South that originated in blackface minstrel shows in the mid-1800s.
Like many of the Confederate symbols they celebrate, “Dixie” has a tortured history rife with racial animosity. But these rally-goers described themselves as post-racial Southerners. They are proud of their heritage, they said, not the racial division that marks its history.
Since many of the rally-goers did not live in Orange County, the convoy of flag-covered trucks and motorcycles began at an antique store in Burlington in Alamance County and traveled to Hillsborough’s Town Hall.
Some people wore replicas of the Confederate army uniforms. Others donned T-shirts bearing the Confederate flag. “I’m offended that you’re offended,” one T-shirt read. Another said, “Never fuck with someone that wants to die in battle.”
Hillsborough, the seat of progressive Orange County, has become the local focus of a national controversy over the significance and propriety of Confederate flags and memorials. Last month, town commissioners agreed to remove the words “Confederate memorial” from the portico of the Orange County Historical Museum on North Churton Street.
The building, which opened as a “whites-only” library in 1934, was once named the “Confederate Memorial Library” following a donation from the Hillsborough United Daughters of the Confederacy. The building became a museum in 1982, but the lettering remains.
Kiley Mangum, an Orange County resident who helped organize Saturday’s rowdy but otherwise peaceful event, told attendees that by removing the letters, Hillsborough leaders are defacing a historical marker.
“Let ’em try!” someone bellowed.
“If one idiot wants to use our flag for their hatred, that’s not our fault,” added Mangum. Mangum was referring to Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who told police he wanted to ignite a race war when he gunned down nine African-Americans at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in June.
“We’ve got the moral high ground,” Mangum said. “Let’s keep it that way. We are the best Americans. Let’s not become what they claim us to be.”
The Charleston killings weighed heavily on this rally, which had Hillsborough, for the second time in a week, swarming with Confederate flag supporters and their opponents.
H.K. Edgerton, an African-American activist and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, frequently attends these events. Edgerton, who runs the website SouthernHeritage411.com, accused the media and public officials in Charleston of convicting Roof before his trial.
“That shooting was the kick in the butt this [Confederate heritage] movement needed,” Edgerton said.
But the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said at that group’s rally on Thursday that supporters of the Confederate flag are “eating the stale bread of racism and the spoiled meat of hatred.”
“Our current legislature and governor will protect monuments of our racist past, but they refuse to protect voting rights,” Barber said before about 200 people.
Both rallies occurred about two weeks after Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation prohibiting local governments from removing Confederate monuments from public property without the state’s approval. The measure was designed to thwart an increasing number of calls to dismantle Confederate monuments across the state.
Activists are also pressuring McCrory to halt the issuance of specialty Confederate flag license plates, although the governor says he does not believe he has the power to make such a change without the General Assembly.
Most anti-flag demonstrators point out the Confederate symbol was widely flown by segregationists and hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, decades after the Civil War. Attendees Saturdaynearly all of whom were whitesaid they believed the flag to symbolize their Southern heritage, not racial discrimination.
At one point Saturday, flag supporters gathered on one side of busy North Churton Street, chanting, “White supremacists stole this flag!” Across the street, one of about two dozen counter-protestors held a sign that read, “White supremacists, go die.”
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, who attended Thursday’s NAACP rally but opted out of Saturday’s event, supported removing the Confederate lettering from the local museum. This week, Stevens said the flag supporters who gathered in Orange County on Saturday were welcome, but only because they have a First Amendment right to free speech.
“Most of what they are saying involves a distortion of history,” Stevens said. “Whether that is a misunderstanding or willful suppression, I think they’re presenting a point of view that I don’t agree with and I think the majority of Hillsborough would not agree with.”
Signs lining downtown Hillsborough on Saturday echoed Stevens’ sentiment. One sign proclaimed, “Hillsborough against hate.” Meanwhile, protesters wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts walked through the rally Saturday.
Hillsborough Commissioner Brian Lowen, the only African-American member of the town’s Board of Commissioners, said he would not have felt welcome Saturday had he attended.
“What does that flag really mean to you?” Lowen said. “When you say it’s part of your heritage, explain to that to me. To people of color, it reminds them of a time when the states were fighting with each other, one reason for that being to keep the institution of slavery. I don’t know how to get that point across.”
Lowen said town board members were advised by their police chief to stay away, fearing their appearance would only anger pro-flag activists. Some of the activists sent “hateful” responses to the board’s July vote on the former library, Lowen said.
“I don’t want us to keep battling back and forth,” Lowen said. “The war is over.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt also attended Thursday’s NAACP gathering, but skipped Saturday’s rally. He said he was puzzled by the intense support of the Confederate flag.
“I’m having a hard time thinking of another example where, more than 150 years later, the defeated rebels are celebrated in the way the Confederacy is.”
Kleinschmidt also bristled at the rally’s notion of “taking back Orange County.”
“Take it back from whom?” he said. “The ‘take back’ idea invokes in my mind that there must be some belief that it’s being wrongly held by someone.”
But Mangum said the group’s cause is justified. “We need to stand up and let them know we won’t back down,” she shouted. “Can I get one more rebel yell?”
In the dwindling moments of the rally, as attendees gathered for a last round of “Dixie,” Orange County native Denise Fisher gripped my arm. She saw my reporter’s notepad and she had something she wanted to say.
“You can’t have it both ways,” she warned.
Fisher said Confederate flag supporters could respond to the movement for removing Confederate monuments by targeting places such as Margaret Lane Cemetery, a historic Hillsborough graveyard off Occoneechee Street that was reserved as a burial ground for local slaves and their families in the 1800s. The town restored the cemetery in 1987 and dedicated a monument in 2010.
Does the graveyard marker offend her? I ask. “Yes,” she replies. “I used to play ball on that field.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The South lost. Get over it.”