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Controversy: County Fairs And Confederate Flags

Delaware County Fair

America's ongoing debate over the Confederate flag has stirred conflict in the Catskills.

Following the murders of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof, who had embraced the Confederate flag, the emblem was removed from statehouses in Alabama and South Carolina this summer —  Democratic and Republican presidential candidates declaring it too divisive for official display. Many companies like WalMart and Amazon removed merchandise bearing the symbol from their catalogues. The New York State Fair announced that the Confederate battle flag would not be welcome at its fairgrounds.

The banner has become a personal issue for many Americans, as it did in July in the sleepy Delaware County Village of Margaretville, where some who attended the Margaretville Firemen's Carnival were disturbed by towels bearing the emblem being displayed at souvenir booths. Fairgoer and NYU Professor Daniel J. Walkowitz was offended: he calls the flag 'an objectionable symbol of pro-slavery.'"    "I completely recognize the issues around freedom of speech and freedom of expression and I'm actually pretty supportive of that. I would be pretty unhappy I think if I saw Nazi flags and probably would be just as opposed, but I think here the issue is, among other things, that this was an event that was a public event that was being sponsored by for the city. To me that's what really made this a different kind of instance. It's one thing for individuals to decide that on the back of their truck they're going to have a flag or individually on their house they're going to put up a flag that other people may not like or support a political candidate that somebody might not like. And it seems to me, you know, that's a very different matter than something that's publicly sponsored and meant to represent the values of the community."

Walkowitz and his wife brought their concerns to the attention of the show's promoter, who insisted the flag was a celebration of a great American general, Robert E. Lee.  Walkowitz hopes when the carnival returns next year, it will be minus the Confederate symbolism.

The story might have ended there but for the Watershed Post. The online newspaper that covers the Catskills had freelance reporter Robert Cairns at the house last week when Delaware County fair organizers met. In the story he filed, Cairns quotes  Director Norm Kilpatrick, who said regarding Confederate flags at the event:  “The more of them, the better.” Here's Cairns:    "There were no quotes taken out of context in our original story. I talked later with one of the fair board directors and he indicated that their problem was really with some of the reaction to the story, one of the online news services that picked it up, and some of the comments of people on facebook postings about it."

As the story filtered through media outlets like NBC and salon.com, the wording somehow apparently got corrupted. One example, quoting now: "the Delaware County Fair is not just allowing, but encouraging vendors to fly the Confederate battle flag at the August 17-22 event. " Cairns says that characterization is simply not true.   "There was one outrageous quote in that story and that's the one that got all the attention from one of the directors, and I think he meant it. But the rest of the board took a really reasoned approach to it. Two of them simply said 'we've already got these vendor contracts out there, there's nothing we can do about it now.' They didn't say 'well, no, we're gonna fly the Confederate flag, and in fact, they're not flying it, they're just allowing it to be sold. And a couple of the others just thought that it was just a lot of fuss about nothing.  It was all in response to just one request to ban the flag. It's not like there's been a groundswell of opposition to this here."

Meantime, the Ulster County Fair issued a press release saying that Confederate flags are allowed at the event, which was wrapping up Monday. According to the Times Herald-Record, vendors were asked Thursday to keep the flag out of public sight so as not to offend patrons.

Guisela Marroquin, interim director the Lower Hudson Valley Office of the NYCLU weighs in:  "Fairs that take pride in supporting respect of all New Yorkers are taking an appropriate stand by requesting that vendors not sell the Confederate flag, which is a symbol of oppression and discrimination that hurts many New Yorkers."

Messages left at a number listed for the Delaware County Fair were not returned.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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