Johnnie Warner doesn't have a problem with the Confederate flag.
It doesn't matter that he's a black man and director of the Columbus Black History Museum.
Warner says removing the Confederate flag from American life would only fuel resentment among white Southerners and worsen race relations.
"That's like taking away the Dr. Martin Luther King memorial from the blacks," he said. "We need to respect each other's history."
Warner, a retired veteran originally from Cleveland, said his views are shaped by his experiences both as a historian and serving in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany during the 1970s, a group of Southern soldiers signed a Confederate flag and gave it to him as a keepsake, he said. They said it was because he respected their heritage, and he still has the flag today.
But Warner is an anomaly. The Confederate flag remains a divisive issue between blacks and whites in America, and particularly the South. The emotionally charged debate has surfaced once again in the wake of the shooting in Charleston, S.C., which left nine churchgoers dead.
Photos of the alleged gunman Dylann Roof waving the battle flag of the Confederacy has sparked national outrage and an unexpected campaign to remove the flag from state capitols and other public places.
A few days after the massacre, the South Carolina state legislature voted to consider removing the Confederate flag from a monument at the state capitol. In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered that four Confederate flags be taken down.
Walmart, Sears, Amazon and eBay are also part of the national movement, announcing that they will no longer sell Confederate flag merchandise.
In Columbus, views of the flag are divided -- often, but not always, along racial lines. Many in the white community see it as a symbol of their heritage and the South's gallant defense of state rights. To blacks, however, it is a symbol of white supremist ideology and the South's relentless resistance to slavery's demise.
'It causes pain'
Billy Winn, a local historian and author, who is white, says it is white Americans who haven't fully appreciated the pain and suffering that blacks endured during slavery, not the other way around. He said removing the Confederate flag from public places is the right thing to do.
"I have fought for many, many years advocating for the removal of the Confederate flag from all public buildings, parks and what not," said the former editorial page editor for the Ledger-Enquirer. "What people want to do in their homes privately, that's their business. But the flag is an embarrassment in public places and should be taken down. It causes pain to black people. It gives the wrong impression of what, I hope, is the aspiration for equality in our citizenry. And it creates negative feelings when there's no reason for it."
Tonza Thomas is president of the Columbus branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She said the Confederate flag displays America's hypocrisy regarding race.
"Either we're under one flag, or we're under two flags, and it seems we're under two," she said. "White people want to uphold their heritage waving this Southern flag around, but their heritage is an atrocity to African Americans.
"Yes, the Confederate flag needs to come down, and also the American flag for that matter, because the Confederate flag promotes hate and the American flag covers it up," she said. "There wouldn't have been nine people that passed away if we'd had this conversation before (the shooting). That flag should have been gone."
Abraham Ross, who is black, shared his views while sitting at the Royal Cafe, a soul food restaurant on Eleventh Street. He said removing the Confederate flag from public spaces won't fix the problem.
"Even if we resolve the issue of removing the flag from the statehouse, the sentiment is still there. So what are we going to do with that?" he asked. "I thought we were moving forward, and it's almost like we're going backwards with all of this stuff."
A part of history
Joe Coley grew up as part of the local Children of the Confederacy, a group affiliated with the Daughters of the Confederacy. Coley, a history buff, said he's also a former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He believes vilifying the flag will only draw more people to it.
"The reaction that's happening around the country on this, if we're not careful, what will happen is the opposite of what we want to happen," he said. "If we portray Confederate flags as being evil instead of historical, young people are going to go out and buy them and wear them. I think we're creating a problem that's not there."
Coley, who is white, said he doesn't think the flag should be a symbol on government buildings and state license plates because it's offensive to many people. However, he believes it's an important part of Southern heritage that should remain in museums and at historical sites.
"Only a very small part of Southerners during the Civil War were slave owners," he said. "I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and they didn't own any slaves. They were fighting when Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was invading Georgia and burning a swath 60 miles wide across the state, and they fought to defend their homes, their land and their families.
"Those are our ancestors, and I see those people as people that were defending our state and our homes, and certainly we want to remember and honor them for doing that," he said. "I'm sorry if that offends anyone. I don't want to offend anybody."
Paul Vorhees is owner of Ranger Joe's, a store on Victory Drive that sells military gear. He said he stopped selling Confederate flags at the store 20 years ago because it offended his "Christian brothers." Vorhees said he also owns a gift shop at the National Infantry Museum, and Confederate flags are sold there because the museum requested it.
"They haven't said anything about not selling it now," he said. "But if they do, I will stop selling it."
Vorhees, who is white, said he doesn't have a problem with the Confederate flag, personally.
"The flag doesn't offend me, it's a part of history," he said. "I don't believe one life will be saved because of it. And I think we've had as much harm to people under the American flag as the Confederate one."
Both Vorhees and Coley said they're also members of the Columbus Black History Museum, where they've learned a lot about African-American history from Warner.
'A complicated situation'
Winn, on the other hand, said the Civil War was fought for the wrong reasons and is a disgrace to the South.
"It should have never happened, and thousands and thousands of people died for an unjust cause," he said. "For many, many people it represents evil -- that's why I think it should come down. It's unfitting to represent people of the South in the modern era."
Yet, people have a right to possess memorabilia related to their heritage, Winn said. He has his great-grandfather's battle flag and sword at his home, as well as portraits of Civil War generals Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
"I'm as interested in history as anyone has ever been, but you don't use the pain of other people to give yourself temporary happiness based on the notion that somehow the Confederacy was heroic. It wasn't heroic. It was built on the blood, sweat and toil of thousands upon thousands of enslaved black people, and it was wrong."
Richard Gardiner, assistant professor of history education at Columbus State University, said the Confederate flag is a complicated issue and won't be easily resolved.
"I do a lot of genealogy and I understand this idea that, 'If my great great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and he's still part of my family and his blood is running through my veins,' you have a sense of a natural connection to that person," he said. "It's altogether human for us to honor our ancestors to some degree. But it's complicated, I think, to divide your ancestors from what their causes were and things of that nature."
Gardiner said most of the forts in the South, including Fort Benning, are named after Confederate generals and that also troubles many people.
"But if you tried to change it, it would certainly rouse the ire of a lot of people," he said. "So it's a complicated situation -- the whole flag, the heritage and the names of the generals. All of that is very complicated, and I don't know that there's an easy solution. Certainly the populace is divided on it."