At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Confederate flag flies on lightning rod in Canton

When a policy that would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in a tiny mountain mill town’s municipal parades was first proposed, it was immediately identified as both a sensitive cultural issue and a thorny Constitutional question that cast the Western North Carolina municipality as a microcosm of the complex national debate over the role of Confederate imagery in society today.

But now that locals have had their chance to weigh in before Town of Canton officials during an open meeting, public sentiment seems even murkier.

There was talk of tolerance, unity and community counterbalanced by that of unanticipated consequences, outsiders and 1960s-era communist conspiracies; framed within the changing perceptions of a controversial history, the discussion itself is an early test for a new, young mayor in a relatively progressive Southern town where everything else seems to be going right, but this lingering issue for now remains grey.


You fly it

On Oct. 26, Canton Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett proposed a municipal parade entry policy similar to thousands across the nation, but for one important distinction.

The display of “any image or content that includes nudity, profanity, lewdness, illegal drugs, violence, obscenity, hate, [or] racism” would be prohibited during town parades, along with “anything that is vulgar, sexually explicit, insulting or offensive to any ethnic, religious, political or other identifiable group or individual, or that may incite violence.”

The Canton native Hamlett, an associate professor of political communications at Brevard College who holds a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, has published works on racism, teaches First Amendment classes, and says he’s a strong supporter of First Amendment rights.

But after he received complaints arising from the display of the Confederate flag in the town’s recent Labor Day parade — the South’s oldest — he promised he’d look into the situation.

Hamlett then consulted the Anti-Defamation League, a 104-year-old nonprofit dedicated to ending discrimination, and prepared his proposal.

Few other towns address speech in parade policy, but it’s not altogether uncommon — a small number of other towns have banned or attempted to ban the flag from municipal events, seeking to disassociate themselves from what the ADL calls a hate symbol. Hamlett’s is the first of it’s kind in the area and possibly in the state, and is also one of the most direct in its intent.

That intent is not to prohibit speech outright, but to instead use the time, place and manner of speech to determine when it may be inappropriate — a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has regularly upheld.

The town’s Christmas and Labor Day parades are for “diverse family audiences,” according to Hamlett’s proposal, clearly outlining what people should expect at such events.

Pot leaves, pornographic images, vulgarity and incendiary symbols are not among those expectations, nor are symbols of hate; however, the first person to address the assembled aldermen and alderwomen Nov. 9 sparked debate over marijuana, albeit in an inadvertent kind of way.

“I don’t favor the Confederate flag, and I don’t disfavor the Confederate flag,” said Jean Paris. “It’s always been a part of my life. I’m a Southern girl. I’m a country girl, and I respect that flag. I’ve never saluted that flag but I still respect it and I still consider it a part of my history.”

Directing her comments to Alderman Hamlett, Paris said she hadn’t really come to talk about the Confederate flag and that she was “disappointed” that the proposal could possibly do more harm than good.

Unfurling a large vinyl banner, Paris — founder of local substance abuse nonprofit Drugs in Our Midst — said, “What does that look like?”

The anti-drug banner depicts a spilt bottle of pills, a syringe and a pot leaf.

“That’s Illegal drugs on my banner,” she said. “That means we can’t carry this banner if we are in the parade.”

Paris obviously isn’t promoting drug use; quite the opposite, in fact.

Chris Jennings, however, stated unabashedly what his organization was promoting.

“According to the wording of this ordinance, leaving the [Confederate] flag aside, the kitchen can’t participate in the parade because we advocate for a cause,” said Jennings, who is chairman of the board of the Canton Community Kitchen and also a pastor. “My church can’t participate in the parade, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an offense. It says that if any person or group is offended by it, you can’t be there.”

Jennings said that participating in the town’s parades helps both of his organizations garner more visibility within the community.

“I should have that right,” he said. “I always have. I hope I always will.”

Even more, Jennings called on the board to reject any attempt at limiting speech during parades.

“We have the opportunity to set an example,” he said. “We can say if you want to fly your American flag, you fly it. If you want to fly your rebel flag, fly it. If you want to fly your gay pride flag, fly it. If you want to fly your African flag, fly it, and we’ll love you not because of what you represent, but we’ll love you for who you are.”


This is now

While valid, the concerns of Paris and Jenkins would fall to designated parade officials, who can be neither arbitrary nor capricious and must apply commonly accepted community standards as they decide what may be inappropriate; few reasonable people could associate the pot leaves on the banner of Paris’ anti-drug organization as offensive, and the current cultural mores of the town — home to many churches — make the thought of regulating Christian symbology downright laughable.

But what if community standards do change?

According to Judy Bartlett, who also spoke at the meeting, a long-underway communist plot to undermine America is doing just that, and its nefarious tentacles have finally reached Canton.

In January 1963, Florida Democratic Congressman Albert Herlong read into the Congressional Record 45 “current communist goals” including the infiltration of major American political parties and the presentation of “homosexuality, degeneracy and promiscuity as normal, natural, healthy.” The tome is sometimes invoked by conservatives as the purported motivation behind progressive policymaking.

“Number 17 of those goals is to take over the school system,” Bartlett said. “They’ve done a good job of that, because our kids for decades have not been taught accurate history. They’ve been taught revisionist history, and I daresay most people in this room haven’t been taught accurate history.”

Goal 31, she said, was to destroy the country’s history and culture, something that she thinks could happen in Canton.

“Now you can look up those 45 goals, and they’ve just about every one been accomplished,” said Bartlett. “For this body to deny the rights of your citizens to display that flag wherever and whenever they choose is trampling on their civil rights.”

North Carolina, she said, has a proud history in what she called “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Another speaker that night, Mike Combs, was in agreement with her, albeit from a unique outside perspective.

Born in Gary, Indiana, Combs called himself a “dreaded halfback” and said that it took him months to build trust with his Southern neighbors here.

“And I know why,” he said. “Too many out-of-towners coming up here want to run things from the place they were, that failed miserably, and they want to come here and keep that same crud going. I am not here to change things. I salute the Old Glory. I always will. But I respect the flag of the beautiful people here.”

Combs, who joked that he got rid of his Florida license plate as soon as he could, decried the cultural cleansing Bartlett mentioned, and demanded an immediate end to it.

“Do you see the fruits — the repercussions — of always falling back?” he asked the board. “We’re always made to fall back [from] things that were right. I say this is where it ends. This is where it ends. We fall back, we fall back, we fall back. It’s got to end here.”

The flag, Combs explained, used to be “right” but has been deliberately mis-portrayed, attracting far more lightning than any actual rod upon which it might fly.

“That Confederate flag has nothing to do with anything the media says that it does,” he said. “You see it on any program, and it’s always in a negative state — always the black-hating, Jew-baiting rednecks, the lowlifes. That’s what it pictures. To tell you what, there was more righteousness in that St. Andrew’s Cross than on any boat with that [American] flag that brought slaves over.”

Another outsider — in a region where one can still be considered an outsider after four generations — is Yvonne Gilbert, who came to Western North Carolina as the single parent of five children almost 25 years ago.

“I wanted a place where I could raise them with dignity, respect and tolerance,” said Gilbert, who holds degrees in clinical psychology, pharmacology, and substance abuse counseling from the State University of New York system. “I found that here. I not only found an innate natural intelligence in most mountain folk, but a deep reverence and commitment to family, religion and respect that continues inter-generationally — not at all what I found up North.”

Gilbert said that the environment contributed to the success of her now-grown children, and admitted that she occasionally displayed the Stars and Bars while they were yet young, but doesn’t anymore.

“I am in no way insensitive to the atrocities of slavery nor do I condone it in any form,” she told the board, adding that three of her grandchildren are biracial. “But that was then and this is now.”

Gilbert cited a disclaimer in the ADL’s hate symbols database entry for the Confederate flag that states, “because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature.”

Given the time, place and manner of display — judged by commonly accepted community standards — it’s quite possible that the flag could still be displayed during municipal parades in the Town of Canton even if the proposed policy was adopted.

“The only way anything in Canton is going to grow is with people coming together, and the ordinance that’s being proposed is completely pulling people apart,” Andrew Henson told the board as the public comment session drew to a close.

Shortly after Labor Day, Henson helped organize a motorcade of more than 200 that according to reports in The Waynesville Mountaineer was meant to be inclusive but instead featured dozens of vehicles flying Confederate flags in a prominent cross-county procession.

“When you go to a parade, the Confederate flag has always been a part of it. There’s always somebody that had it, and it’s never been a problem until all of a sudden now,” said Henson. “And when you’re saying these people can’t come in the parade and this group can’t come into the parade, it’s really aggravating and going to make those people mad, and it’s just a whole bunch of fighting. There’s nothing good coming from it. It’s going to cause a whole lot more arguments and fighting, protests.”

The arguments and fighting in Canton haven’t even really begun; Hamlett’s proposed policy wasn’t on the agenda that night, meaning no discussion, vote or formal public hearing was scheduled to take place.

But that didn’t stop the largest crowd in recent memory — close to 50 — from showing up, and it certainly didn’t stop the six speakers, all white, from taking almost half an hour to unanimously decry the letter if not the spirit of Hamlett’s proposed policy.

“I’m sure the board and the future mayor will take all of this into consideration as they look at things,” sad Canton Mayor Mike Ray, who was in the final minutes of his last meeting as mayor and seated just yards from his successor, Alderman Zeb Smathers, who was elected in an unopposed race just two days prior.

“Thank you all for being here, and I’m sure this will be looked at and taken into consideration,” Ray said.


Christmas in Dixie

With that, the torch was symbolically passed to Smathers from Ray, who followed Smathers’ father Pat as mayor of Canton six years ago and declined to seek reelection this year.

Accompanying Mayor-elect Smathers on Nov. 29 will be Canton residents James Markey and Kristina Smith, who’ll be sworn in as the town’s newest alderman and alderwoman. Both Markey and Smith were in attendance at the Nov. 8 meeting and will join Hamlett and Alderwoman Gail Mull, who helped Hamlett with the proposal, on the town’s board; they’ll all soon look to Smathers to set the tone of his tenure, but they didn’t have to wait until Nov. 29 for him to do so.

“I suspected there was going to be a lot of people here tonight, and it’s true,” Smathers said. “But this is a conversation we have to have, over and over again, to talk about this, and air this out. There’s nothing more American.”

The first formal business meeting of the new board isn’t until December, meaning that nothing is likely to occur with Hamlett’s policy this year.

And there’s no real rush; Smathers appears eager to lay out his vision for the town, which includes building on a string of recent economic development victories, holding the line on property taxes and completing several major public works and recreation projects. Municipal budget season will begin shortly into the new year, with the next Labor Day parade still months away.

The town’s Christmas parade, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m., wouldn’t be affected by the proposal anyway, but given the contention over the issue, it’s probable that the sidewalks and streets of Canton will be lined in red and green, and in red, white and blue, and in blue and orange, and in black and white.

“At the end of the day, we’ll figure this out,” Smathers said. “And we’ll remain a community.”

Go to top