A boycott is unfurling over Confederate flag sales at the Lorain County Fair.
In February, the Lorain County Board of Mental Health voted to not have a booth at the 175th fair, which runs Aug. 22-28. In March, the Amherst-based Community Foundation of Lorain County said it would no longer provide grant money for fair-related activities. And Oberlin Public Library board of trustees members may vote at their July 13 meeting against staffing the fair.
The boycott won’t have much effect on the financial bottom line of the Lorain County Agricultural Society, which runs the fair. It receives roughly $1 million in vendor fees annually, according to Kim Meyers, fair president. The fair also received about $2,800 in county taxpayer money for the 4-H Club and general operations and $2,865 for fire insurance last year.
The mental health board paid $295 for its booth, said Charlie Neff, board executive director. The foundation grant for the Lorain County Junior Fair livestock competition was $500, said Brian Frederick, foundation CEO and president.
Rather than hurt the fair financially, flag opponents say the boycott is about getting the fair board to ban sales because of the flag’s symbolism.
It was the emblem of the Confederacy, often employed by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a symbol of lynchings and Jim Crow discrimination. Southern states like South Carolina began flying it at their state capitols in response to passage of the 1955 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Boycotters say they respect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and speech that allow people to display the flag at the fair. But they say there’s nothing in the Constitution that requires selling it.
“Hate speech is free speech. This isn’t hate speech,” activist David Ashenhurst told Oberlin library board members at their June 8 meeting. “This is hate sales. This is hate commerce.”
Meyers argues flag supporters consider it part of Southern heritage and Civil War memorabilia.
He said banning sales would set a bad precedent, noting vendors sell images of Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo — which critics say is a racist caricature of American Indians — and gay pride flags, which some have objected to.
Meyers said it’s wrong for the fair board to be told what it can and cannot sell at the fair. He said no one is being forced to buy the flag or attend the fair.
“A lot of these people probably never come to the fair, but in the name of political correctness, they’re bringing forth their points,” Meyers said. “I respect their views, but our board and I disagree with their opinions.”
The image of the flag in state flags and allowing it to fly at state capitols has been protested for decades. It took last year’s fatal shootings of nine black people in a Charleston, S.C., church to rejuvenate the anti-flag movement. Suspected shooter Dylan Roof is a self-proclaimed white supremacist who brandished the flag in photos before the killings.
The killings led to the flag’s removal from the South Carolina state capitol. Amazon, Target, and Wal-Mart stopped sales as did the Ohio State Fair.
However, flag sales continued at the Lorain County Fair, angering Lorain County Democratic Party president Anthony Giardini and county commissioner Matt Lundy.
Giardini said the party won’t have a booth this year and he wrote a February letter asking Democratic officials and public entities to boycott the fair. Fair board members responded by removing photos of the county commissioners from their guidebook and said commissioners will no longer receive free passes to the fair.
The mental health board was the first to comply with Giardini’s request. Board members voted 10-5 (three members were absent) to boycott.
Neff said boycott advocates felt the fair allowing sales was a de facto endorsement of the flag as was participating in the fair. “It was just something they weren’t comfortable (with),” he said.
In a March 23 letter to fair board president Brian Twining, Frederick wrote that the foundation — a private, nonprofit entity — wouldn’t provide any money for fair activities as long as flag sales continue. He said the fair is an “icon of community pride” but allowing flag sales clashes with the foundation’s goals of inclusion and makes some residents feel unsafe and unwelcome at the fair.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred, oppression, slavery, and discrimination,” Frederick wrote. “While ownership and display of a Confederate flag may be a matter of individual choice, the fair board also has a choice and has chosen to allow these sales and to gain financial benefit from associated vendor fees. We consider this nothing short of approval of the message this symbol represents.”
Frederick said in an interview that foundation board members felt bad about cutting money for children, but the fair board needs to understand how offensive the flag is to some. “Ultimately, it’s their decision, but the fair board needs to hear from the community,” he said.
The fair has some 500 vendors, Meyers said. They pay fees for booths, but don’t share profits with the fair. Meyers said only two vendors sell the flag and the fees they pay are relatively small compared to the fair’s overall revenue.
Oberlin Public Library employees are among the Lorain County library workers who share staffing of a library at the fair in Wellington. Darren McDonough, library director, said the library spends several hundred dollars on fees and to pay workers to staff the fair. The money is from the Friends of the Oberlin Public Library, not taxpayers.
Ashenhurst said he was aware libraries have always sought to defend freedom of expression and free speech. However, Ashenhurst said the boycott isn’t over the right of people to wear images of the flag or display it.
He said the boycott would be over sales, which Ashenhurst said violate the fair board’s rule restricting vendors from selling merchandise of a “questionable nature.” The fair board also reserves the right to deny space to a vendor “at its discretion.” Ashenhurst said flag sales contradict the board’s goal of making the fair a “family-friendly” environment.
“It is a symbol of slavery and hate, not a symbol of some heritage,” Ashenhurst said, noting neo-Nazis wave the Confederate flag in Germany because it is illegal to wave the Nazi flag. “We’re trying to get them to enforce their policy in a way that makes sense.”
Meyers said it’s a “straw man’s argument” to ask whether vendors should have the right to sell Nazi flags if they can sell Confederate flags since no vendor has ever requested to. “If it comes up we would respond to it,” he said.
Asked if he could understand how the Confederate flag is seen as the equivalent of the Nazi flag to some, particularly black people, Meyers questioned why no one complained about its sales until the Charleston massacre. He noted the flag has been sold at the Lorain County Fair for at least 30 years.
“Where was their offensiveness the last 35 or 40 years before the politics got involved with Commissioner Lundy, with Tony Giardini, and with the incident in Charleston, South Carolina?” he asked. “Where were they? They were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t important. It wasn’t an issue. They weren’t so offended then.”
Twining also questioned why there weren’t complaints until the massacre, which he said he deplored.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Just because of this one incident?”
Ashenhurst said the boycott isn’t political and complaining about the timing is a dodge. “It’s not that it hasn’t been the right thing, it’s just that there hasn’t been enough pressure to do it,” he said.
Twining, who only votes to break ties, said the 21-member fair board has already decided flag sales will occur at this year’s fair. Asked what kind of opposition it would take to get sales banned at future fairs, Twining said he didn’t know, but everyone is welcome at the fair.
Oberlin library board member Jeff Baumann said he is torn by the issue. Baumann said his daughter participates in 4-H Club activities at the fair but he doesn’t believe selling the flag is constitutionally guaranteed.
“I don’t know if the display of the Confederate flag rises to the level of hate speech, but it clearly is offensive to numerous persons in Lorain County,” said Baumann, who is also Oberlin’s public works director. “The Lorain County Agricultural Society is clearly on the wrong side of history.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.