COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Confederate flag is not a hateful symbol but instead a banner with positive historical context despite "the few thousand people that run around wearing sheets and committing atrocities," said Ben Jones, the "Dukes of Hazzard" actor and former Democratic congressman.
Jones spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday from Sperryville, Virginia, where he owns a store that sells Confederate flags and other items and celebrates the fictional Hazzard County from his TV show. He runs two other Cooter's Place stores — named for his "Hazzard" character — in Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Jones said his stores will never stop selling Confederate items even as national retailers such as Wal-Mart drop them in the wake of the massacre of nine people at a black church in Charleston. The man charged in the deaths had been photographed with the Confederate flag.
"We're not changing anything in stores. There's no reason to change anything," Jones said. "We despise racism."
He added: "It's not a hateful symbol, and we despise that it's being used by bigots and hate groups."
But he also said he understands those who side with South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and lawmakers who want the Confederate battle flag removed from the Statehouse grounds.
"We recognize that it's on public ground and does not represent all the taxpayers," Jones said. But he added that he's pleased that lawmakers did not act immediately when they considered the idea Tuesday, agreeing only to consider removal of the flag later this summer.
"I'm glad that they're doing it without the enormous haste. That will be a more effective, thoughtful and considerate exchange of ideas," he said. Jones said he'd like to see the flag stay put.
Jones represented Georgia in Congress as a Democrat from 1989 to 1993 after the television show ended its run.
"My politics have always been foremost about equal rights for everybody," he said.
In a Facebook post on the page for his store late Tuesday, Jones called the flag a symbol of the spirit of independence. The flag represents the values of the rural South including courage, family and good times, he wrote.
"We are the same good people today that we were last week and last year and we are not going to be shamed into turning our backs on our heritage," he wrote.