CHULAFINNEE, Ala. >> White Southerners who equate Old South symbols with regional pride rather than hate are even more on the defensive since neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other extremists became the face of the fight over Confederate monuments.
With more than two dozen relatives who fought for the Confederacy, Robert Castello literally wears his Southern pride. The visor, suspenders and ring he donned Thursday were all emblazoned with the familiar design of the rebel battle flag.
But Castello, whose Dixie General Store sells Confederate-themed hats, shirts, stickers and signs in rural eastern Alabama, said he doesn’t have any use for overtly racist groups like the Klan.
“When I was growing up it was like a badge of honor to be proud of your Southern heritage. It was taught and it was part of who you were,” said Castello, 58. “To see it denigrated down to the point of Nazis is disgusting.”
A leading Southern heritage organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had no official involvement in the bloody protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its leader condemned the white supremacists who rallied for preserving a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“It’s painful to watch, for lack of better words,” said Thomas V. Strain Jr., the group’s commander. “It was our family that fought, and it was our families that died, and now we have these knuckleheads hijacking the flag for their own purposes.”
Social media feeds dominated by Southern whites contain similar criticism of extremist organizations, which watchdog groups have said were out in force in Charlottesville in the largest white supremacist gathering in years.
The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been described as an admirer of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Photographed with white nationalist demonstrators before the deadly crash, Fields is charged with murder and other offenses.
The Confederate battle flag has long been used as a symbol by the Ku Klux Klan, which has displayed the banner during rallies for decades. But many white Southerners see the flag and rebel monuments as nothing more than part of a regional identity that includes Lynyrd Skynyrd music, college football, sweet tea and the Bible.
The idea that any of those things have become caught up with Nazism is baffling to people like Castello.
“I’ve always loved Southern heritage, even when I was in high school,” he said. “It was passed down that it was an honorable thing and I believe it was, although not all of it was good.”
Even the children of Southern music icon Johnny Cash are distancing themselves from extremists after a neo-Nazi was shown wearing a shirt with an image of the late singer in Charlottesville. A Facebook post by the Cash family requested that his name “be kept far away from destructive and hateful ideology.”
Jeff Schoep, who leads a white nationalist group that demonstrated in Charlottesville, said Confederate symbols and monuments have become a rallying cause for white extremists not because of any Southern identity but because they see their removal as an “assault on American freedoms.”
To be sure, neither Castello nor Strain advocates the removal of Confederate monuments. Both see them as important historical touchstones that have an important place in modern life.
“These statues were erected over 100 year ago to honor the history of the United States,” said Strain. “They’re just as important to the entire history of the U.S. as the monuments erected to our forefathers.”
Similarly, President Donald Trump on Thursday blasted the movement to remove Confederate monuments, tweeting that the nation is seeing “the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.”
Castello supports Trump and sees the president as the unlikely New York real estate magnate who has become a defender of Southern symbols. Trump seems to get that not all Southerners are Nazis or Klansmen, Castello said, and others should, too.
“To me all the talk about the Klan and the Nazis is a smoke screen for an attack on Southern heritage,” he said. “They want to link everyone who flies the (Confederate) flag with the Klan and Nazis, which I don’t want any part of.”