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Racism or Free Expression? Confederate Flag Displays in Maine Ignite Debate

BREWER, Maine - The debate over the right to display the Confederate flag is arousing some strong feelings here in Maine. It's a debate which has intensified in the four weeks since the massacre of black worshippers at a South Carolina church.

The white suspect in the case posted a racist manifesto online, as well as photos of himself posing with a Confederate battle flag. For many, this reinforces their view of the flag as a symbol of racism, hatred and division. For the flag's defenders though, it's an expression of individual freedom, regional pride and states' rights.

Larry Burke runs Burke's Auto Center in Brewer. On July 4, he raised the Confederate battle flag outside his business. For one week he flew it alongside the stars and stripes and a flag commemorating missing POWs from the Vietnam war. Burke himself is a Vietnam combat vet.

"What prompted it was what's happening in the South," Burke says. "I think they're over-reacting on the flag. That flag belonged to a Marine buddy of mine that was a double amputee in Vietnam. It meant nothing to him other than he was proud to be from the South."

Burke says his friend, who was from South Carolina, died five years ago. He says he doesn't like the way the flag has been demonized because of what one person did. "An individual did an horrendous crime, then took a picture with a Confederate flag. I guess we should all be glad he didn't take a picture with an American flag."

During the week he displayed the flag, Burke says he received no complaints. "Everyone that's come in has been positive. I even had a black gentleman come in last Friday wanting to know why I was taking it down."

Some Mainers, however, are clearly upset at the sight of the Confederate flag. In one recent incident, a Waldoboro teenager made headlines after a Confederate flag was stolen from the back of her pick-up truck - a truck she had been planning to parade in a local pageant. And just this week, a sheriff's deputy in Lincoln County responded to the theft of a Confederate flag from a residence in the Whitefield area.

"I think you cannot take away the deep message associated with the flag," says Rev. Kenneth Lewis. Lewis is pastor of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland - a sister congregation to the African American church attacked in Charleston, South Carolina, last month.

"It's troubling to me that persons in this state would, in fact, think it appropriate to fly a Confederate flag, given all of the struggles and the strainings over the decades and over the years for African-Americans to actually feel a part of a country that they helped build," Rev. Lewis says.

Since the shootings, local demand for the Confederate flag has increased. Derek Auclair runs the Gorham Flag Center on Route 25. He says he only sold two Confederate flags over three years - until last month. Then, after the Charleston shootings, he says, more people wanted them. "I probably could have sold at least a couple of dozen."

Auclair was unable to sell any, however, because soon after Charleston, the two major flag manufacturers he uses stopped supplying and producing Confederate flags. Auclair says this was a relief. "I mean, it's good for me, in a way - it takes it all out of my hands."

Tom Porter: "Have any people been annoyed that they can't get them?"

Derek Auclair: "Very. One guy got really mad, to the point where it was probably good that there was another customer here in line waiting, because I was afraid he might have gotten a little bit more aggressive."

"I think the Confederate flag is a sort of in-your-face display of defiance toward an array of things that some rural people are troubled about," says history professor Alan Taylor, from the University of Virginia. "So people who feel they are somehow threatened by a more multi-cultural or multi-racial America, and who perceive the federal government as their enemy, have gravitated toward the Confederate flag as a symbol to sum all of that up."

A native Mainer, Taylor is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the Civil War. Given that thousands of Mainers gave their lives to defeat the Confederacy, he says he mourns whenever he sees a Confederate flag flying in his home state.