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S.C. Retailers Caught In The Middle Of Renewed Debate Over Confederate Flag


The Confederate battle flag is on the defensive more than at any time since the Civil War ended. That flag appeared in photos held by a young white man identified as the gunman who last week shot to death nine black churchgoers in Charleston.


The governor of South Carolina now says the Confederate flag should come down from in front of that state's capitol. There's talk of removing it from state license plates and taking it away from its prominent place on the state flag of Mississippi.

MONTAGNE: Major retailers are also pulling products with images of the flag. But some stores are still carrying Confederate-themed merchandise. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang talked to people about its symbolism at one such shop in Charleston.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: If you're in the market for a new Confederate battle flag, bumper sticker or shot glass, there's a store less than a mile from Emanuel AME church in the heart of Charleston's tourist district.

ROGER MITCHELL: Right here is the license plates. And then we have some magnets - this all here - yeah, down there, hats, which are over here. The flag is right up here.

WANG: Roger Mitchell is the assistant manager here at the Five and Dime General Store. This is where you can find plenty of Confederate flag thimbles lining a shelf above Aunt Jemima salt shakers made in China. Mary Cole also works here and says most of the people who buy this stuff are tourists.

MARY COLE: I think it's just kind of, like, a novelty. Like, they're in the South. That's part of the South's history, so they just - it's kind of just a cool novelty item.

WANG: This week, Wal-Mart, Amazon and other national retailers announced they will no longer sell Confederate-themed merchandise. And lawmakers in South Carolina are debating whether to take the Confederate flag down from in front of the statehouse. But here at the Five and Dime, Cole and Mitchell say Confederate souvenirs are still selling. Bill Greer of Hueytown, Ala., though, is not interested in any of it, even though he's proud of his Southern roots.

BILL GREER: I like deer hunting. I'm a Southern redneck, too (laughter).

WANG: Greer says he doesn't have a problem with stores selling Confederate merchandise.

GREER: That's just the way people at one time lived, but that doesn't mean I want to live that way. People one time lived in caves, but I don't want to go back and live in a cave.

WANG: But across the street from the Five and Dime, Dolph Kilby wears the red, white and blue symbol of Southern history with pride. Kilby rips off the Confederate flag patch...


WANG: From his black baseball cap and shows it to me. He's a student at North Carolina's Catawba College, and to him, the flag doesn't represent racism.

DOLPH KILBY: You have people like white trash that have given it that name. But to me, it's about a symbol of heritage of where we come from in the South, where money used to flow.

WANG: Kilby says the renewed debate over the Confederate flag has left him feeling conflicted. But he doesn't think removing the flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds is the right way to move forward from the church shooting.

KILBY: I don't think it's a flag problem. I don't think we should take it down.

WANG: But Kilby says he understands the other side.

KILBY: Where it's like, yeah, as long as it's flying, there will be racial tension in the air.

WANG: Down the street from Emanuel AME Church, the Confederate flag is nowhere to be found amongst this crowd of protesters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How everyone doing out here?

WANG: But it's a topic that's present in many conversations for demonstrators like Keenan Bell of Summerville, S.C.

KEENAN BELL: It needs to come down because of what it represents. You know, a lot of blacks have died behind that very same flag. I think it's time to go - period - time to go.

WANG: For Kalaani Reynolds of North Charleston, S.C., the timing of all this talk about removing the Confederate flag is suspicious.

KALAANI REYNOLDS: Now all of a sudden, everybody's screaming tear the flag down. It's a pacifier because the world is watching, but it does not fool us.

WANG: Reynolds says she doesn't expect the debate about the flag in South Carolina's state capital to truly address the issue of race in the state.

REYNOLDS: I've seen no changes at all - not yet. That flag is nothing. That flag is nothing.

WANG: Real change, Reynolds says, will take more effort than moving a piece of cloth. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Charleston, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.