Debate over the Confederate flag is playing out in North Georgia, and it's going viral.
Flag defenders in Dalton and Fort Oglethorpe met over the weekend to rally. Hundreds flocked to the North Georgia cities, with variations of the battle flag of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia waving behind them.
In Dalton, a bystander captured the procession on a cellphone video — including a traffic accident involving participants — and questioned why the group had a police escort. In short order, the video was posted online and featured by media outlets across the country.
Another pro-flag group plans to organize in Catoosa County on Saturday. And an opposing group in Dalton plans to hold a black pride civil protest Wednesday afternoon.
Since a white man killed nine black men and women attending Bible study in a church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, the flag has been at the center of an emotional debate. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man arrested in the Charleston shootings, reportedly had the Dixie flag on his car license plate and on a jacket he wore in a photo on his social media page.
After the shooting, many Southern politicians quickly called for the removal of the flag from statehouses and license plates, and retailers such as Wal-Mart and Amazon stopped selling it. Supporters of Confederate heritage, meanwhile, rallied to defend their colors.
"It's just disrespect for removing our flag from locations where we can't buy it," said Jon Owen, who organized the Dalton rally on Sunday. "It has nothing to do with race at all, it's just heritage. A lot of people don't understand that."
Owen said protesters collected more than 350 signatures on a petition to express their displeasure.
But there are many in the South and elsewhere who see the Confederate flag through another lens. For them, it immediately brings to mind slavery and oppression.
Elenora Woods, president of the Chattanooga NAACP, said it is for that reason people shouldn't fly the banner.
"It's a matter of being American and united. It's about putting down your personal preferences and thinking about what your neighbor may be experiencing," Woods said in a written statement. "That hurts African-Americans because of everything it stands for and stood for. Put the flag in a museum. Put it in a historical collection. Put it in the history books and talk about it. But don't wave it. Don't let it continue to fly because it's offensive."
A LONG DEBATE
Despite being more than 150 years old, the argument over the Confederate flag hasn't changed.
Michelle Deardorff, department head of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said neither side is necessarily wrong. Different sides perceive the flag differently — and both views have a historical basis.
For those in favor of the Confederate flag, it symbolizes a brave few who were willing to fight for their way of life. But for opponents, it's the battle flag of slave owners.
"It seems to me the battle starts over the symbol when two things are occurring: When you see increased instances of racial oppression and instances of changes coming from the federal government," Deardorff said.
But Deardorff said one view has started to eclipse the other in the national court of public opinion.
"I think the national understanding of the symbol has changed. I think there is more of an agreement that it is a sign of racial oppression than a sign of states' resistance," she said.
That only serves to intensify the emotional response of those who favor the flag, she said.
Allen Baker, who owns a hunting supply business in Calhoun, said that for him, the Confederate flag is an expression of resistance to what he sees as an overreaching federal government. He said he's concerned about a perceived threat to gun rights, health care and basic freedom.
"It's not racism at all. It's more just heritage. The main thing for my part is they keep taking away, and taking away and the American people just sit back and sit back," Baker said. "I think the American people are finally getting a belly full and I think you are going to see protests and rallies."
He added that he hoped those gatherings would remain peaceful.
The Rev. Alan Jay Holman Sr., pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said history would not be diminished if the flag stopped flying.
"It's a symbol of oppression, and taking it down would not jeopardize the heritage or the history behind the Confederate soldiers who have given their lives in honor of their position," he said. "But it's a blatant symbol of racism and white supremacy."
But not all in the black community agree.
Quenston Coleman, former chairman of the local Martin Luther King week celebration, said the flag is an important, bitter reminder and a learning tool.
"What we need to do is illuminate the Confederate flag as a reminder of America's lowest point in human relations," Coleman said.
In Dalton, supporters of the black pride protest plan to walk to city hall, according to a Facebook event.
The Facebook page says traffic was stopped for flag protesters who were escorted from the Walnut Square Mall to Wal-Mart on Tibbs Road — about 5 miles — and that the black pride group expects the same respect.
"We understand that they have the 1st amendment and can voice [fly their flags] their opinion but it should also be understood that we have the same right," the message states.
Dalton police Chief Jason Parker said in a written statement Monday that police heard about the flag gathering via social media and only wanted to ensure it proceeded safely.
"We had a concern that the group may proceed without coordination and felt it would be safer for our community to have a presence there to keep it peaceful," Parker said. "Our officers are in a tough position sometimes because they are called in to maintain order in the middle of strongly opposing views. We do not support any group which discriminates against the rights of others, or attempts to cause fear or alarm in our community."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.