COLUMBIA - Armed with rebel battle flags and a conviction that the South was right and still is, nearly 400 people gathered at South Carolina's Capitol on Saturday to send a message to lawmakers, who return for business this week: The flag fight is not over.
The organizers, a Greenville-based group called Save Our Flag, did not have the co-sponsorship of some larger groups, such as the secessionist League of the South and Sons of Confederate Veterans, both of which are concentrating their efforts on a massive Southern heritage demonstration in May.
So a crowd of any size was what the organization wanted, spokesman Robert Clarkson said.
He said Save Our Flag wants at least to keep the Confederate flag where it is now, beside a monument to Southern soldiers at the Capitol, or at most to have it put back where it was until last July 1, on the Capitol dome. The flag was moved as the result of a legislative compromise.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is sponsoring an economic boycott of South Carolina until the flag disappears from public property, is having an anti-flag rally Jan. 15, also at the Capitol.
The rally coincides with the first time South Carolina will observe the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a state holiday.
Although a half-dozen counter-demonstrators were gathered across the street, Saturday's event was peaceful, with no clashes between the factions.
That pleased Stanley Lott of Saluda and Robert Harrison of Summerville, both black and both in sympathy with white Southerners who think the states are the master of federal government, not the other way around.
"Me and you, we have the same kind of blood," Mr. Lott told the cheering crowd. "You look at me and say that I am black. I look at you and say that you are white. But we have got to stand together.
"We are Confederate Americans, and we may be the only people who understand that the federal government is going beyond its Constitutional power. We don't need the NAACP and the Yankees and the tyrannical federal government telling us what we've got to take down," Mr. Lott said. "If we are going to take down a flag, we ought to take down that American piece of junk and burn it."
Mr. Harrison, a librarian at historically black South Carolina State University, said to the mostly white crowd, "This flag is not a symbol of your heritage. It is not a symbol of my heritage. It is a symbol of our heritage."
The flag that flew over slavery and the slave trade was the American flag, he said.
People who think "this flag" represents slavery need to understand, he said, that Congress sanctioned slavery before the Civil War began. Mr. Harrison said he's dedicated to showing the world that it's not just whites who rally around the Confederate flag as a symbol of defiance to tyranny.
But the Confederates have a long row to hoe to convince blacks that there are common issues whites and blacks should tackle together.
Mr. Lott said that is the most difficult issue he faces as a person who believes white Southerners are neither racist nor unpatriotic.
"We have more in common than people will admit to," he said.
What it all means and what it's all about are issues on which the two sides have not agreed. What both do recognize is that the issue is not a dead one.
Numbers are not important, said Lourie A. Salley III of Salley, who predicted there will be at least one Confederate battle flag raised against the Anti-Christ at Armageddon, the biblical showdown between good and evil.
All over the world, except in this country, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of freedom, he said. The battle, he said, is not between black and white Southerners, but between all Southerners and outsiders who want to exploit them.
Keynote speaker at the rally was Fitzgerald, Ga., pastor John Weaver, who unintentionally has found himself at the center of a political controversy in the past few months. Mr. Weaver wrote a tract outlining a biblical defense of slavery that was sold in Maurice Bessinger's barbecue restaurants.
Nearly 2,000 retailers used that tract to justify taking Mr. Bessinger's barbecue sauce off their shelves several months ago. Mr. Bessinger, who says he lost the outlets for his barbecue sauce because of his political beliefs, served barbecue to all who showed up after Saturday's rally.