© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Confederate Flags Still Found At New York's Fairs, But Meaning Is Up For Debate

Summer is coming to a close and the last of the fairs are wrapping up. Fairs are a family destination, with iconic food, rides and agricultural exhibits. But for some people, they’re not as family friendly as they could be. As WAMC News intern Zeyna Reifenheiser reports, the Confederate flag can be found at several of New York’s 50 fairs. 

Traveling through rural New York, it’s not uncommon to see the Confederate flag: everything from bumper stickers to full-sized flags flying from the back of pickup trucks. Sometimes they’re paired with the Tea Party-adopted “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden Flag.

Several vendors at multiple fairs who spoke with WAMC News this summer said the resurgence of the flag's popularity and demand coincided with measures by several states to ban its display on government buildings. The flag is disappearing from the private sphere as well, with Amazon and Walmart having stopped sale of them.

Harry, who declined to give his last name, has been a vendor at the Dutchess County Fair for the past 36 years and is originally from the South.

“Most of the young kids buy these, you know, people buy them only because they got rebel on them and whatever design is on them," he said, adding, "It’s harder and harder to find them because nobody is making anything here anymore.”

The flag dates back to the Civil War. Today, it evokes different things for different people:

For some, the General Lee car with a Confederate flag on its roof in the “Dukes of Hazzard,” which has been censored on some channels. For others, the racially-motivated shooting of black church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina, which sparked a national debate about the place of the flag in American society.

The flag has also long been a symbol adopted by the KKK. Lamar McKee, a Schoharie County fair worker, said he had a run-in with the Klan in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“Most people over the last decade or several have been seeing it as more of a racist thing, but that’s not the way I see it. I think it’s more like if somebody is celebrating their heritage of being black, you know, like for Black History Month, how we celebrate the pride, we go up we say, ‘Hi, brother,’ or we do a fist in the air, it’s pretty much like a physical symbol; like the Confederate flag is a symbol for representing the South.”

He added: “It's  how you use it. A gun is only dangerous if somebody pulls the trigger or uses it in hate. You know, it all depends on whose hands it’s in.”

Not everyone agrees. The Anti-Defamation League calls it a hate symbol, butsays “because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists…it should only be judged in context.” The NAACP, on the other hand, has pursued multiple lawsuits seeking a ban on the flag at government-affiliated displays as part of opposing“state sponsored symbols of white supremacy.”

Here in Yankee New York, for many people, county fairs are one of the only places to buy the flag. A Schoharie fairgoer who declined to give his name was in a store that sold Western clothing along with the Stars and Bars. He said as a teen, he saw the flag as a symbol of rebelliousness, not hate. But as an adult he recognized its contentious symbolism and does not own or identify with the item anymore.

Many people WAMC asked about the flag, including fair personnel, were reluctant to speak or provide their names.

The fairs that have introduced prohibitions on Confederate flag items sold by vendors include the New York State Fair in Syracuse, the Otsego County Fair and the Washington County fair. However, items were still seen on display in one shop at the Washington County fair, although not in direct view from outside the vendor’s tent. As part of a March decision, a Civil War exhibit was present for the first time at the Washington County Fair.

One of the cars in the Demolition Derby had a Confederate flag attached to it with the words “Redneck Customs” spray-painted on.

The fairs themselves are classified as non-profits so legally they can prohibit the sale of any item. WAMC commentator Stephen Gottlieb is an Albany Law School professor specializing in free speech issues.

“There have been civil liberties lawyers who have fought for the right of people we despise like the Klan to be able to say what they need to say.” He added, “I think those of us who are involved with the Civil Liberties Union have started with the very strong perspective about the importance of protecting free speech and not having government decide what speech is permissible and what speech is impermissible, because the fear is that that power will get abused, misused.”

The fairs are wrapping up for the year now, but the debate over the place of the Confederate flag is sure to last another year — and then some.

WAMC News Intern Zeyna Reifenheiser is a senior at the University at Albany double majoring in documentary studies and globalization studies.

POST UPDATED 9/20/2016

The New York Civil Liberties Union, in a statement to WAMC, described its position on the Confederate flag after this story originally aired:

"Government officials can seek to encourage respectful behavior at an event they open up to the public, but generally cannot censor the expression that takes place there, nor can they punish expression based on context there (for example, by banning vendors of confederate flags from attending). At the same time it is appropriate for government officials to make clear that New York has a policy of inclusion and equality for all, by requesting that vendors not sell the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery, oppression and discrimination that hurts and intimidates many New Yorkers."

Related Content