UPDATE: South Carolina has permanently removed the Confederate flag from its state capitol.
Nearly two weeks after the brutal Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre, where white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine black people during an evening Bible study in the Charleston, South Carolina, house of worship, the Confederate flag is still flying on the grounds of the state's capitol.
The debate around the flag and what it symbolizes has been going on for decades. But the controversy found new urgency when investigators discovered a website featuring photographs of Roof waving the flag.
Much has been made of various prominent politicians' views of the flag and its continued presence at the statehouse. On June 22 South Carolina governor Nikki Haley reversed her previous support for keeping the flag at the capitol and called for the state legislature to vote to take it down. President Obama also called for the flag's removal during the funeral of state senator Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims in the church shooting.
There has been grassroots action as well: An online petition to remove the flag from all government property has amassed more than half a million signatures, and on June 27 activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and removed the flag. (She was arrested and the flag was put back up.)
Well-known businesses also have entered the discussion--Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and Walmart have pulled most of their Confederate flags and other merchandise featuring the flag from their websites and shelves, although a handful of emblazoned items can still be found on offer.
Truly, the flag issue has never before been the national talking point it is now. Still, relatively little has been heard from one group that's directly impacted by the white-hot emotion surrounding the debate: small business owners in Charleston and throughout the South. Inc. spoke with several of them--along with entrepreneurs elsewhere in the country--to see what they think and how they've been affected.
Souvenir shops back out of Confederate memorabilia
The Five and Dime General Store on Market Street in Charleston, about a 10-minute walk from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has decided to pull all of its Confederate flags and other items emblazoned with the symbol in spite of continued demand from customers.
"It's a difficult time for the whole country right now. We have been thinking about this issue and talking to our employees across our other stores around the country, from Santa Fe to Charleston and Kansas City," Earl Potter, one of the three co-founders of the company, tells Inc. from his Santa Fe store. "It's not because we don't understand it's a significant part of our country's history. I think it's clear the flag is causing serious damage to racial relations."
Potter has 10 stores, mostly in the South, and says Confederate-emblazoned merchandise represents a not-insignificant portion of sales. But he says his business is trying to do whatever it can to help the country get through the tragedy. "It may hurt our bottom line in the short term, but we won't notice it much by the year's end, and the flag is too divisive," he says. "When it's being used by racist groups, as quite a few have been doing, you see it as a symbol of racism. That's what it has become."
The desire to preserve history
When asked whether he plans to stop selling Confederate flags and related products at his Kennesaw, Georgia, memorabilia store, Dent Myers doesn't hesitate.
"I think it's asinine, actually. I think if people stop selling it, they are missing a good chance. I think the people who are taking it out of their shops don't sell many anyway and they can save face by complying with one-tenth of 1 percent of the public's wishes," Myers, the owner of Wildman's Civil War Surplus and Herb Shop, tells Inc.
The 84-year-old says the Confederate flag isn't a racist symbol. He says the South fought the Civil War in response to the tariff placed on goods the Confederacy was selling to the North, and ultimately to defend itself against invaders from another country. "Slavery was low on the totem pole," he says.
Myers describes himself as skeptical of the government and a staunch believer in personal freedom. "Most of the people I have come in contact with work and don't have time to go out and take care of other people's business and [tell them] what they should do with their business or with their life," he says.
He goes on to explain what the Confederate flag means to him, and why he will continue to sell it at Wildman's: "To me, it's an honorable symbol and wasn't for slavery. ...It's just history. And that's all I care about is the history."
Flag manufacturers unite
Roseland, New Jersey-based Annin Flagmakers, the oldest and largest flag manufacturer in the U.S., announced on Thursday that it will stop selling the Confederate battle flag and the Confederate field artillery flag, the two versions people are generally most familiar with. (The company will continue to manufacture other historical Confederate flags, including the first national flag of the Confederacy, known as the Stars and Bars.)
Annin sells flags only to other businesses such as independent flag retailers. Its change in policy is mostly symbolic--only about 4,000 of the 10 million flags the company sold last year were Confederate flags--but then the entire debate is about symbolism.
"As a company, we have followed the evolving public perception around the flag," says Mary Repke, the company's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "We felt it was the right time to stop selling this flag. Yes, it has some historical value, but since the mid-1970s and through to today, it has become more closely associated with things that bring back a negative past."
Annin isn't the only major manufacturer that has stopping manufacturing and selling the Confederate battle and artillery flag--others, including San Antonio-based Dixie Flag Manufacturing Co., have made similar announcements recently.
The dinosaur at the capitol
Last year, when Charleston business owner Steve French ran for governor against incumbent Nikki Haley, the issue of the Confederate flag was raised during a debate. Haley said the issue of the Confederate flag "honestly never came up" during her calls to recruit big businesses down to South Carolina.
But French, the CEO of Low Country Grease Service, which buys kitchen grease and turns it into biofuel, said the Confederate flag is a symbol that is holding back his city and state.
"I have friends in the tech world all over this country. Bringing up if they would want to start a business in South Carolina, they literally laughed at it," he tells Inc. "They made it very clear that the view of South Carolina is still this backwoods, good ol' boy state. The problem is that they are right to some extent with that flag still flying."
He said that after the tragedy at Emanuel AME church, "there is no debate" over the flag. "It's very clear that most citizens, from business owners to students, are fed up, and it will pass in the legislature," he says. "I think the debate is over. It's just about the timeliness of getting it done."
French, a Libertarian, says that while you should be free to paint a Confederate flag on your house, it's time for South Carolina's capitol and its business community to rid themselves of the flag once and for all.
"The Confederate flag [is] a dinosaur," he says. "It represents something old and dead and something that has no bearing on my life."