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Confederate Flags Pop Up At Canton Christmas Parade

Cory Vaillancourt

Many small towns sponsor holiday parades, complete with everything one might expect to see – sidewalks crammed with people, garland-draped lampposts and high school marching bands keeping the beat on the street.  But at the town of Cantons two most recent parades – including last night’s Christmas parade – some were also greeted with the sight of the Confederate flag.

After receiving complaints following Canton’s 111th Labor Day parade – the South’s oldest – Canton Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett proposed a parade entry policy that would in effect ban from the town’s two yearly parades symbols of vulgarity, profanity, illegal activity or hate, including the Confederate flag.  "I made a promise that I would look into existing rules and regulations and take necessary steps to prevent offensive displays. It was a promise I made, and a promise I kept", he says.

Hamlett introduced the proposal at a town board meeting in October.  At the next board meeting, Hamlett’s plan - drafted with the advice of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center - wasn’t on the agenda.  But Southern heritage activists and free speech advocates still packed the boardroom to offer unanimous disapproval.  Regulating speech isn’t necessarily anti-First Amendment according to Hamlett, who is also a professor of political communications at Brevard College. As in the classic case of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, the Supreme Court has upheld some limitations.  "The court has ruled that you can control certain types of speech according to time, place and manner, and that’s the approach I took", Hamlett says.  The proposal says that a family-friendly, inclusive-minded municipal parade funded with taxpayer dollars is neither the time, the place nor the manner in which to display what the Anti Defamation League calls a symbol of hate.  An ensuing social media storm sparked a conversation Canton needs to have, according to newly-minted Mayor Zeb Smathers.  Smathers was an alderman when Hamlett’s proposal was introduced, but was sworn in as mayor November 29.  "Any conversation that involves people examining what our proposals and ordinances are, whether it’s for a parade, whether it’s for a recreation complex, is important", says Smathers.

That conversation also elicited vows by some to bring plenty of blue and orange to the red and green of Canton’s annual Christmas parade, held Thursday night.  Hendersonville High School student Keelie Jones was there, serving in her capacity as Miss Western Carolina’s Outstanding Teen.  Jones says she has a black father from Ghana, and a white mother from the United States and that it wouldn’t bother her a bit to see the Confederate flag in the parade.  "No, that would not personally offend me if I saw something like that, because people obviously have the freedom of speech, so if they want to fly their flag, then I feel like they should be allowed to, and everyone does have their own right to voice their own opinion", she says.

And see one she would – two, actually – hanging from floats in the Canton Christmas parade.  Afterwards, at a nearby Waffle House, Haywood County resident Tracy Coward said he was with one group of flag-bearers in the parade.  "It’s freedom of expression. If you want to have a Confederate battle flag, if you want to have a Christian flag, if you want to have a gay rights flag, that’s your right", he says."

With the next parade in Canton - the 112th Labor Day parade, nine months off - Mayor Zeb Smathers doesn’t want the issue to become a distraction.  "We are a very welcoming town, and no matter how this policy turns out, we will remain that. And we want people from every walk of life, from every creed. We think they have a place, and we want them part of the Canton community", the mayor says. 

But a troubling new development emerged Thursday night, as flyers stapled to wooden poles along the parade route touted Identity Evropa, a white supremacist organization that played a central role in both the Berkeley and Charlottesville protests earlier this year.

Matt Bush joined Blue Ridge Public Radio as news director in August 2016. Excited at the opportunity the build up the news service for both stations as well as help launch BPR News, Matt made the jump to Western North Carolina from Washington D.C. For the 8 years prior to coming to Asheville, he worked at the NPR member station in the nation's capital as a reporter and anchor. Matt primarily covered the state of Maryland, including 6 years of covering the statehouse in Annapolis. Prior to that, he worked at WMAL in Washington and Metro Networks in Pittsburgh, the city he was born and raised in.
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