H.K. Edgerton is not your regular, politically correct African-American activist. When he stood on the sidewalk last week, just a few yards from the NAACP office on Patton Avenue, holding aloft a Confederate battle flag, most of the passersby probably thought this was one wacky black man.
That's not the way Edgerton sees it.
Edgerton -- a former president of the Asheville NAACP chapter, and a recent candidate for Asheville City Council -- says black people should be as proud to raise the Stars and Bars as the American flag, if they know their history. He points out that when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman took the North's revenge on the South, his men didn't distinguish between black-and white-owned homes or crops. And, he adds, after the North whipped the South and freed the slaves, what did the victors do for black folks, besides say, "You're free and on your own"?
"Abolitionists would have us believe it was only about master and slave," says Edgerton. "But white folks and black folks were partners in the destiny of the South." Anyway, says Edgerton, at the time of the Civil War, slavery was recognized as an institution on its way out, because it was no longer economically viable. He also posits that President Abraham Lincoln's intent was not so much to free the slaves as to save the Union, at any cost. Black and white people would have fared better in an independent Southern nation, argues Edgerton.
All right, so Edgerton has a slightly contrarian view of history. But why was he standing out on the sidewalk for five hours, aggravating a sore back and holding a fairly large Confederate flag? For that answer, we have to go back a couple of years, to when the Ku Klux Klan wanted to return for another march in Asheville. Edgerton was concerned that, because the previous march had elicited such hostility, another would quite possibly result in violence, even deaths.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Edgerton took the rather unusual step of setting up a meeting with Kirk Lyons, a local lawyer with a national reputation for defending victims of Southern-heritage violations, including white supremacists. Edgerton admits that he was scared to meet with Lyons, whom he considered to be a white supremacist. But Edgerton felt such an encounter might avoid bloodshed in the streets of downtown Asheville.
At that meeting, Edgerton says he gained a new understanding of Lyons and what the man represents: upholding constitutional rights, unpopular though they might be. Edgerton has since been elected chairman of the board of the group Lyons directs: the Southern Legal Resource Center, in Black Mountain.
Roundly criticized by many for that meeting, Edgerton nevertheless has maintained his relationship with Lyons and, recently, was the only African-American invited to speak before white members of Camp 19 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Shelby.
It was there that he took up the cause of defending the appropriateness of displaying the Stars and Bars.
"There have been hate groups who have grabbed the flag and run with it," he says. "They have used it wrongly and have no idea about its real history."
The rest of us, including the people of South Carolina, can and should proudly display this flag, says Edgerton. Because South Carolina legislators have refused to remove the Stars and Bars from atop the state capitol, the NAACP has called for a national boycott of South Carolina businesses. Edgerton considers this terribly misguided and predicts it will only hurt black and white business people and workers. "If the NAACP intends to destroy the Confederate heritage that all Southerners and South Carolinians share in, then I cannot remain silent," he declares. "I am sickened at the hypocrisy inherent in a so-called civil-rights organization waging economic warfare on the rights of the citizens of South Carolina. [My] protest will continue from day to day, as long as is necessary."
Meanwhile, H.K. Edgerton -- and Asheville native, and defender of the oppressed -- will carry on in his own inimitable style, calling attention to what he perceives to be injustices in need of a fix. He says, "I'm just doing what God wants me to do."
And just what did motorists and pedestrians have to say about this unusual protester? Edgerton claims he got the thumbs up from most, both black and white, except for one "ignorant Yankee."