MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Confederate flags returned to the cradle of the Confederacy on Saturday as hundreds of flag supporters arrived at Alabama's Capitol to protest the removal of four rebel flags from a Confederate monument next to the building where the Confederacy was formed.
Standing at the bottom of the Capitol's steps, where 50 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. led a march for civil rights, Tim Steadman said it wasn't right to remove the flags.
"Right now, this past week with everything that is going on, I feel very much like the Jews must have felt in the very beginning of the Nazi Germany takeover," he said. "I mean I do feel that way, like there is a concerted effort to wipe people like me out, to wipe out my heritage and to erase the truths of history."
Days earlier, Gov. Robert Bentley had ordered the flags taken down from the 1898 monument amid national controversy about whether Confederate symbols should be displayed on state grounds.
Standing next to Steadman was Ronnie Simmons, who wore a t-shirt with the face of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis, who was elected as the first and only Confederate president inside the historic Alabama Senate chamber inside the Capitol in 1861, once lived a block away in the First White House of the Confederacy while Montgomery was briefly the capital.
Simmons said Bentley was a "scallywag," referring to a term used in the years after the Civil War during the Reconstruction period to describe white southerners who collaborated with northerners.
"It's alienating the white people in the state of Alabama when you take something down in a historic setting," Simmons said. "If scallywag Bentley thinks he's improved race relations in this state, he's as crazy as a bed bug."
Some attendees dressed in Civil War attire while others arrived in motorcycle apparel with Confederate flag patches sewn into vests. Flags flew on motorcycles playing "Sweet Home Alabama" and rested on the shoulders of men in Civil War uniforms. One woman held a sign that said "Southern Lives Matter," a variation of the "Black Lives Matter" phrase that became a rallying call after the shootings of unarmed black men in multiple states.
Many in the white audience said they feared their heritage was being taken away.
Sherry Butler Clayton said the flag is a way to honor her relatives tied to the Confederacy.
"I have many, many ancestors," she said. "A lot of them are in unknown graves up North where they died on the battlefield. A lot of them came back maimed. And it's just a way. I don't hate anyone. I love all people. My daughter-in-law is black and I love her and I love her family. So it's not a black white issue. It's a heritage issue."
Bentley has received broad support for his decision to remove the flags. In an open letter to the governor, state Sen. Vivian Figures praised him for his action. Figures, who is black, said supporters of the Confederate battle flag "have used the guise of 'heritage' to mask the true meaning of the flag."
"That flag is a message of hatred, bigotry, negativity, white supremacy, shackles, whips, segregation, church bombings, beatings, lynchings, and assassinations," she wrote.
Event organizer Mike Williams said he was pleased with the turnout. Williams, who was one of the first protesters to arrive at the monument after the flags were removed, said he hopes anyone organizing similar events in southern states will keep rallies "about heritage and not hate."