A weekend celebration of our nation’s independence turned sour for parade goers in North Carolina after a local farmer turned his float into a moving advertisement for racism. Donnie Spell’s entry in the Hope Mills Fourth of July parade included a trailer full of watermelon adorned with the Confederate battle flag and signs reading “White History Month” and “HUG WHT PPL.”
The town’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Kenny Bullock, told WNCN that he asked Spell’s daughter-in-law to remove the signs before the paradewhich she didbut that they were put back on and displayed throughout the drive through town. Bullock said that Spell’s application only noted that he’d have 810 antique tractors and a trailer of watermelon for sale. Spell has appeared in past parades, and town officials have allowed him to wave the Confederate battle flag as “free speech,” Bullock said, despite its controversial history.
Best known as the banner for the pro-slavery South in the Civil War, the flag reappeared during the Civil Rights movement as a symbol against desegregation. State flags were in changed in to include the design, including in Arkansas and Mississippi, which flew the flag until 2001. At the University of Mississippi, one of many schools where protesters tried to keep Black students from registering in the 1960s, the flag is a common appearance at football games. It continues to fly from Ole Miss to the capital, Jackson, after residents voted overwhelmingly in 2001 to keep it as a part of their state flag. Meanwhile, more than 100 conventions and business organizations boycotted the state of South Carolina in the early 2000s to protest the flag’s flying atop the statehouse. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts more than 500 extremist groups that include the flag as part of their symbol.
Other signs in the parade, such as “I didn’t vote for Obama” and “God loves rednecks,” were not an issue with those lining the route, but Mayor Jackie Warner began receiving complaints about Spell’s float before the parade ended. Still, Warner and town Commissioners Jerry Legge and Pat Edwards defended the local man, saying they didn’t think Spell intended to be malicious and that he had done many good things for Hope Mills.
Parade goers disagreed, with WNCN reporting that criticism of the float was posted to the town’s Parks and Recreation Facebook page. None of the posts could be seen Monday morning, but they reportedly included comments such as:
“The parade was great. Right up until the prejudiced rednecks. Shame on the city of Hope Mills.” Stephanie Carter Tisdale
“Parade had racial overtones; lots of Confederate flags, Obama bashing sticker on a tractor, and a John Deere tractor had a poster that reads ‘WHITE HISTORY MONTH HUG WTE PPL.’ Certainly, a celebration of independence parade is not the place to bring up these issues.Hope Mills should do better.” Michael Kenneth
“I was absolutely astounded that Confederate flags were allowed to be so widely displayed within the parade. And judging by the comments from folks around me, myself and my husband weren’t the only ones who were shocked and disappointed. The ‘white people’ sign that was on one trailer, mentioned above, was at best a joke in incredibly poor taste.” Megan Green
Alicia Jones was watching the parade with her 7-year-old son and told WNCN that she found the float to be highly offensive. “At that time his innocence was broken, and I had to sit there in the parade and explain to my son what that meantwhat all those signs meantat 7 years old,” Jones said. “I mean, it really caught me off-guard.” She also thinks that Spell’s latest float should be his last. “I think there needs to be an apology, and he needs to not be able to submit to be in any parade again.”
But Bullock said he’s not so sure that a ban is possible or legal and that the town’s attorney will have to advise officials about that. He added that the town is now considering specific guidelines for future parade entries.
Lessons to Be Learned
Corporations can learn from Hope Mills’ complete mismanaging of the situation. First things first, knowand don’t alienateyour audience. DiversityInc’s monthly Meeting in a Box, for example, features timelines and facts on demographic groups tied to heritage months, such as Blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, women, LGBT people and people with disabilities. All comments, including our popular Things NOT to Say series, are vetted by members of those communities.
And that’s a lesson companies in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity increasingly learn: They use their resource groups as focus groups to avoid the kind of multicultural missteps that cause public outcries. Consider this positive use of resource groups by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation to erase misperceptions of Blacks, Latinos and Asians about participating in clinical trials.
This is a very transparent age, so anything that is offensive or abrasive goes viral immediately.
Dr. Claude Steele, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, has spoken to DiversityInc numerous times about the danger of “stereotype threat.” People from underrepresented groups are often so afraid of being viewed through the lens of a stereotype that they become paralyzed and don’t excel. The key to creating an inclusive workplace, he says, is to have an environment where stereotypes can be discussed and eliminated.