Alabama Confederate flag store draws national attention, sales

There aren’t many Alabama businessmen whose comments make the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post on the same weekend.

And there are no others along a stretch of U.S. 431 outside Anniston on the way to Lake Wedowee, besides Bob Castello. The 68-year-old former traveling salesman is the owner of the Dixie General Store, one of the places where those who want to remember the Confederacy take their stand and buy its emblems. And not in Confederate dollars, either, although you can buy replicas of them there.

NASCAR’s ban on the Confederate flag brought out merchants at Talladega this weekend, and demonstrations nationwide – and in Birmingham – have brought down monuments to Civil War figures of both the Confederacy and the Union over the last month. But Castello has been selling flags from this roadside store – about 30 miles from the racetrack – for more than five years, and been talking to journalists for about that long, as he did this weekend for stories on the enduring sales of the flag.

He says he has welcomed visitors of all races to the store, been visited by shoppers from every state and 29 countries, and received calls of support from Black local citizens in Cleburne County. Only rarely does he get a visitor who wants to do more than discuss what the flag means.

“Somebody last month said we shouldn’t be selling that racist stuff,” he said. “I just told him he needed to leave and never come back. I’ll talk to anybody. Usually it’s pleasant conversations.”

Castello has Confederate battle flags, regiment flags, sovereign state flags adopted after secession. You can pick up a 12-foot by 18-foot battle flag for $275, for example. You can even buy a rebel flag mask for the pandemic. A flag flying outside urges people to respect, protect and preserve Confederate monuments, and inside, you can buy photographs of monuments suitable for framing. There are T-shirts, dresses, custom holsters and bumper stickers, all with some variation of the stars and bars.

There’s also plenty of merchandise devoted to the 45th president. Trump flags, Trump hats, and merchandise with Donald Trump’s head photo-shopped onto the body of Sylvester Stallone from the Rambo movies are just some of your options.

After years on the road, Castello noticed Confederate memorabilia selling at flea markets and thought a central store selling the goods in a rural setting might do well. He has always been fascinated by the Civil War, remembering a family member who joined up at the age of 46 to take on Sherman’s army during its march through Georgia. As a child, he remembers a family heirloom sword which belonged to a soldier.

Castello said he makes a lot of the merchandise, as it is getting harder to find domestic companies that sell products with Confederate emblems. He sees a day when major manufacturers, wishing to eschew controversy, stop altogether. Alabama Flag & Banner, located in Huntsville, sells the flag but would not speak for this story. Internet searches also turn up other products featuring the Confederate flag.

Castello had a court case with the Alabama Department of Transportation three years ago dealing with his flag display off Interstate 20, which flies flags and features an image of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He contended the displays were on his own property. The case was eventually settled.

“Some people have stopped doing it (manufacturing Confederate flags),” he said. “If they basically intimidate all the American companies into not making them anymore, they’ll just be made in China. It’s not going to stop. That’s all they’ll accomplish.”

Castello said he doesn’t see the flag as an emblem of slavery, as most of the soldiers in the Confederate Army were poor farmers who did not own slaves. He also thinks that attempts to “jerk down statues” will only bring more customers. Incidents like the killing of George Floyd, or the 2015 mass killing of nine Black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C. church are evil, he said, but he sees no connection between them and the Confederate flag. He hopes to continue selling them as long as he is able.

“A lot of people are very angry at being told their heritage is evil,” he said. “Big corporations and big government telling them what to think makes them mad. Now you see them going after George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, and that’s not acceptable.”

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