BREWER, Maine — The longtime owner of Burke’s Auto Center is flying the Confederate battle flag outside his Brewer service station in response to what he sees as “overblown” national controversy about the banner, as well as in memory of a man he fought alongside in Vietnam.
The flag is flying on a short pole in front of the shop next to the American Flag and a POW/MIA flag.
“I put it out on the Fourth of July,” Larry Burke, 65, said Wednesday from behind the counter of the South Main Street business he’s owned for 30 years. “It belonged to a Vietnam veteran and double amputee that I was in Vietnam with.”
That friend, David Howell Berry of Columbia, South Carolina, died in 2010. Berry gave Burke the flag about 20 years ago, according to Burke.
“What that flag meant to him was that he was happy to be a southerner, it had nothing to do with discrimination,” Burke said of his friend. Burke, who lives in Orrington, said another man he fought alongside in Vietnam, also from South Carolina, carried a Confederate flag with him throughout the war.
The banner has been embroiled in controversy since photos emerged of Dylan Roof, the white man charged with the recent shooting deaths of nine African-American worshipers in a South Carolina church, posing with the flag on a website that also carried a racist manifesto.
Those calling for the removal of the flag from public display argue it is a symbol of racism, slavery and oppression of African-Americans. Defenders of the flag see it as a symbol of Southern pride, heritage and history.
“I think it’s been blown way out of proportion,” Burke said of the recent “chaos” surrounding the flag. He believes people fly the flag for “the simple reason that they’re from the South.”
South Carolina lawmakers on Monday gave initial approval to a bill that would ban the Confederate battle flag from flying on capitol grounds.
When asked what he thought of flying the Confederate flag in the hometown of Joshua L. Chamberlain, the famed Union commander who pushed back repeated rebel assaults on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, Burke said he saw no problem with it.
Berry, the friend who previously owned the flag, studied Civil War history and Chamberlain was “his hero,” Burke said.
Burke, who said he served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1970 to 1971, said people who have come into his shop have had “nothing but positive things to say” about the flag.
He usually flies the U.S. Marine Corps flag outside his business, but he took it down to make room for the battle flag. He plans on putting the Marine Corps flag back up in the future.
Burke said he is in the process of selling his business of 30 years, and plans on retiring after he finds a buyer.
Messages seeking comment from Maine NAACP officials were not immediately returned. City officials said they were not aware of the flag and had received no calls from residents about it. City Manager Steve Bost said the city had no plans to take a position on it.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.