More than 150 people wearing and bearing Confederate flags gathered at the foot of a towering monument Saturday to rally for their heritage.
Speakers voiced sympathy and prayers for the victims of Charleston’s mass shooting, carried out by a 21-year-old white man who voiced white supremacist views and gunned down nine African-Americans in an iconic black church.
They said the killer does not represent them, even though he was photographed brandishing a Confederate flag.
“The lunatic in Charleston did not understand our flag, our symbols or our heritage. … He was a racist. He was a bigot, and above all he was a lunatic,” said a rally organizer, Bill Starnes of Mount Holly. He heads a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter and was decked out in a Rebel gray hat and jacket.
But Starnes and others said they, too, have been victims of “attacks upon our heritage and our culture,” as Pastor Creighton Lovelace said in a prayer.
The Charleston shooting has led many national and state leaders to call for the removal of the flag from public property. Just hours earlier, a Charlotte activist climbed the flagpole and pulled down the Confederate flag that sparked the latest controversy when it flew at full height on the South Carolina capitol grounds even as the state and American flags were lowered in mourning.
The Gastonia event was among the efforts Saturday trying to support and reclaim the symbol of the old South, including rallies at the Columbia statehouse and in Montgomery, Ala.
In Gastonia, SCV members invited people to gather at the foot of a 35-foot “Confederate heroes” memorial, which was erected at the old Gaston County courthouse in 1911 and moved when the county opened a new courthouse in 1998.
The gathering was orderly and drew no counterprotesters.
Starnes said the Civil War wasn’t about slavery or white supremacy, no matter what people might hear or read: “I’m so sick of hearing it.”
Before the rally, Starnes said the goal is “healing.” When asked about scheduling it on a day when victims of the massacre were being buried, he said he thought all the funerals were over.
“We should be in prayer for those families in South Carolina,” Starnes said. But, citing calls for removal of the flag, he added that “we have to be here doing this because we have been so brutally attacked.”