A monthlong controversy came to a boiling point Wednesday at Gainesville State College.
At a panel discussion on the removal of a faculty picture from the campus gallery, some called the administration's actions blatant censorship while others praised the move as a protection of Southern ancestry.
On Jan. 25, campus administrators removed "Heritage?," a painting by Stanley Bermudez depicting a Confederate flag with Klansmen and a lynching in the backdrop from a faculty art show.
The story has gained national attention and was covered by the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, among other publications.
More than 250 campus and community members filled the auditorium's chairs and aisles for the noon discussion, with nearly 100 more watching remotely at the college's Oconee campus.
Some of the event's most heated moments came during the question-and-answer session, specifically when someone asked why many people are still trying to fight a war that was lost 150 years ago.
"That's easy for someone to say who wins," said Perry Charles Lunsford, a member of the Heritage Preservation Association who filed initial complaints about the artwork with the college's president. "When you beat up somebody I guess you want them all to just forget it. But when you get beat up you never forget it. That's just the way it goes."
"My ancestors were on the losing side, and all I can say is thank God we lost," replied GSC professor of journalism Merrill Morris, igniting loud cheers from the audience.
Lunsford, who fielded a majority of the audience questions, said Bermudez's artwork is the latest in a long line of systematic attacks on the values and history of the Old South. He said the Confederate flag is not the official banner of the Ku Klux Klan and was only used in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to market the group's agenda.
"Whether you're selling a perverted philosophy or widgets, in the South, if you wrap yourself in the Confederate flag it will sell," he said. "That's why they carried the Confederate flag. It was never meant to be carried by them in the first place."
He also called the artwork "shock art" and said Bermudez painted it in a quest for fame.
In response, Bermudez said he knew the artwork was controversial but never expected to be censored.
"I was just expressing how I feel when I see that flag," he said. "I went to YouTube and I saw a video of KKK members with the (Confederate) flag and the American flag ... And they had a sign that said ‘Stop the Latino Invasion.' How am I supposed to react to this? I am a Latino."
Bermudez has said he has been working on a companion piece of artwork depicting some of the more positive parts of the flag's history.
Other panelists boiled down the debate to simpler terms, saying the central question is one of freedom of speech and the dangerous outcome when it is restricted. Panelist Sean Herlihy, faculty advisor to the campus' Students for a Progressive Society, said academic discourse allows open criticism and dialogue around art and ideas.
While opinions on both sides of the argument were heard, several panelists voiced their desire to hear the administration's perspective.
College president Martha Nesbitt has made two short statements since the artwork was removed, saying her decisions was "not based on any one group's agenda, complaint or the overall content of the painting" but on the depiction of lynching "that has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country and other academic institutions."
Nesbitt was invited to participate in the panel discussion but had a conflicting appointment. A college spokeswoman said Nesbitt did not feel comfortable having another staff member speak as it was her decision to remove the artwork.
Speakers questioned the college's motivations, saying silence on the matter has been confusing for the community.
"Many faculty and students didn't know why she took it down," said panelist and student Denzil Gelly. "And that should raise the question as to is this a democracy school or a dictatorship school?"
Herlihy speculated as to Nesbitt's motivations, saying she is a strong college leader but bowed to pressure from outside groups.
"We're concerned about offending a community," he said. "Is this the community that's offended? Or is this extremists, organized extremists. Should these folks be dictating what kind of photo we put in our gallery?"
The artwork has been a heated topic on campus since its removal, with many students and faculty saying the community overwhelmingly opposes Nesbitt's decision.
Student Ashley Mitchell, 18, said the panel discussion was purposeful and allowed the attendees to see no one individual or group can speak for the entire community.
Tonna Harris-Bosselmann, adviser for the campus' Students for a Progressive Society and one of the event organizers, said she was thrilled at the turnout and believes the event sparked further dialogue.
"These are the kind of things that people will need to process and reflect upon and hopefully have good conversations with their friends, their classmates and in the classroom," she said. "Hopefully it was a learning experience for everyone."