Riding a new political movement, a clothing manufacturer grows from a successful business into a cause.
Smack in the middle of last December's Christmas rush, vendors selling Confederate-flag apparel made by Dixie Outfitters were booted out of shopping malls in Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Customers, mall employees and civil-rights activists had complained about the company's T-shirt designs, many of which combine images of the rebel flag with romantic depictions of Confederate war heroes, monster trucks, wild game and cuddly puppy dogs.
The controversies were nothing new for Dixie Outfitters. In recent years the Odum, Ga., clothing company has been at the center of disputes in more than 60 school districts nationwide, where school leaders have banned its products on the grounds that they contribute to a racially hostile environment.
The school bans have transformed Dixie Outfitters from an up-and-coming clothing line into a neo-Confederate cause. Last September in Canton, Ga., 150 students wore Dixie Outfitters shirts to Cherokee County High School, protesting a ban imposed by their principal. "Southern heritage" advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged some of the bans in court — with little more success than the Cherokee County students, who were told they would have to change their shirts or cover the rebel flag emblems.
For the owner of Dixie Outfitters, Dewey Barber, all the hullabaloo has been a boon for business. "The more controversy, the better our sales," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall.
Apparently so. Five years ago, the company was housed in an old church, mostly printing up T-shirts for local sports teams and community events. Then Barber discovered the Southern theme and hit pay dirt. Dixie Outfitters just finished a new 25,000 square foot silk-screening facility. Sales have doubled every year, rising to between $2 and $3 million in 2002.
But the loss of his shopping-mall vendors, who he said had been moving $3,000 a day of Outfitters' products, apparently got Barber worried. In January, he began funding an organization called the International Association for the Restoration of Confederate History (IARCH). Headed by a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, IARCH will put together "a top-notch public relations and legal team to represent Dixie Outfitters in its fight against attempts to put it out of business and censor its products," Barber says.
On its Web site, Dixie Outfitters also announced that it would start financially backing three major neo-Confederate organizations, the Southern Legal Resource Center, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Southern Living History Foundation. Along with advertising Dixie Outfitters' T-shirts, caps and backpacks, the Web site now includes a "True History" section with an archive of "historically accurate" articles contending, among other things, that the Civil War was fought over tariffs, not slavery.
The site also offers detailed instructions to students contesting bans on "Southern symbols," including a form letter to send to school boards, informing them that they may be practicing "discrimination against Confederate Americans under the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
In Dixie Outfitters' latest catalog, the ever-resourceful Barber came up with a whole new way to fight the bans on battle-flag symbols. He now offers "Politically Correct Designs," many of which incorporate alternate Confederate flags — or simply tout Dixie Outfitters. In this case, political correctness is decidedly in the eye of the beholder: One of the new shirts, depicting two grim-faced attack dogs, is emblazoned with the rhyme, "My right one is made of iron, my left is made of steel/If my right one don't get you, my left one will."
Another of the "politically correct" T-shirts became a big hit at Cherokee High School after the ban on battle flags last fall. "Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag," it reads. "Banned from our schools but forever in our hearts."