About 30 trucks, cars and motorcycles paraded from Wal-Mart on Northside Drive to the Bulloch County Courthouse Sunday afternoon after a brief rally in support of the Confederate battle flag.
Responding to a call to rally on social media, about 75 people from as far away as Dublin showed up at Statesboro's Wal-Mart Supercenter at 3 p.m. Sunday, with Confederate flags waving, protesting Wal-Mart's decision to pull Confederate merchandise from its shelves across the nation.
Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, eBay and other companies have pulled Confederate-themed items in response to a recent resurrection of the nationwide debate between those who consider the flag a symbol of "heritage, not hate" and those who feel the flag is a reminder of slavery and racially motivated actions of hate groups who adopted the flag as their own.
The debate, which has been fueled several times in the past, reignited following the massacre of nine black members of a Charleston church last month by accused shooter and self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof, 21, who claimed to have committed the act in an attempt to start a race war, according to various media reports.
Roof said he killed the men and women during a Bible study inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church "because they were black." Roof posed with the Confederate battle flag in several photos and a video he posted of himself online.
While many relate the Confederate battle flag to such acts of racism, others deny it holds that meaning for them, claiming the bold flag with a star-studded blue cross over a red background stands for Southern heritage, spirit and pride.
Jimmy Humphrey, from Metter, was one of the first protesters to arrive at Sunday's rally in Statesboro.
"I'm here to display the colors of the United States of America and the Confederacy," he said. "I'm a proud American, and this is a symbol of our heritage. I don't see this as having anything to do with race."
No one at the scene noticeably opposed the gathering except a group of young people of various races in a small, blue car passing by who shouted expletives. During a brief parade around the courthouse, two people passing by in cars shouted racial epithets and cursed the protesters, who gathered around the memorial statue of a Confederate soldier. The rally broke up when rain began to fall.
No one at the gathering at the rear of Wal-Mart's parking lot knew who organized the event, which was advertised as a Facebook event sponsored by a group called "Save the Confederate flag" (www.facebook.com/Notasymbolofhate).
After about an hour, Wal-Mart manager Eric McCoy and another store associate walked out to the group and spoke with them briefly. McCoy told one man he had been watching them for some time and acknowledged they had not caused any trouble, yet he asked that the group remain peaceful. When asked if he would comment on the protest rally, McCoy declined.
Pembroke resident Phil Crowley and his wife, Denise, who is from the United Kingdom, arrived on motorcycles waving the American and Confederate flags.
Denise Crowley said she was there to support her husband and did not really know much about the issue, but she said in her home country, they are not allowed to fly their own flags.
"There is nothing racist about this flag," Phil Crowley said. "Just because one group of white supremacists used the flag as a symbol of hatred - that's what people see, not knowing the complete history of the flag."
He said he doesn't fly the flag in order to offend and attended the rally in support of his and others' rights to display symbols of their heritage.
Following the Charleston shootings, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said the Confederate flag that flies over the Confederate Memorial on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia should be taken down. Monday, the South Carolina state Senate voted 37-3 to remove the flag. A vote in the state House is expected later this week.
Wesley Sitton, also of Pembroke, arrived at the Statesboro rally with Confederate battle flags on his Ford Bronco.
"I'm proud to be from the South," he said. "I love my heritage, and nobody is going to tell me my heritage is wrong."
It is all about freedom and independence, he said.
Jerry Bennett, of Brooklet, said, "It's more about rights being taken away than heritage."
Phillip Hughes, of Effingham County, not only flew two large battle flags from his truck but also wore a Confederate flag-designed T-shirt "in support of (his) heritage."
"It's about Southern pride and independence, for me," he said. "I believe in the Bible, I believe in this flag, and nobody can tell me not to fly it. This is America."
John Hall drove all the way from Dublin to attend the rally. He views the flag as a memorial honoring his "great-great-great-grandfather" Stephen A. Corker, who was captain of the 3rd Georgia Regiment and led the third charge at Gettysburg, he said.
"We're here to join other Southerners and say enough is enough."
Statesboro police officers patrolled the parking lot during the rally, but there were no disturbances.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.