When he proposed to "lynch" the Confederate battle flag on the Gettysburg College campus, John Sims wondered whether he'd get a thumbs down from the school's art committee.
Instead, "Oh my god, they were more psyched than I was," recalled Sims, a 36-year-old artist based in Sarasota, Fla. "I was like, wow, these are some cool white people."
He doesn't think so anymore. After complaints and threats against the artist and college officials, plans to dangle the politically charged symbol of the Confederacy from a noose atop a 13-foot gallows on the quadrangle -- near the bloodiest battlefield of the Civil War -- have been changed. Sims's exhibition, which also features a rebel flag dolled up drag-style in fuchsia satin and a feather boa, has been moved indoors, to the college's Schmucker Art Gallery.
It opens Friday under heavy guard. And Sims isn't coming.
"They put a release out like a month before the show that says, 'Artist to Lynch Confederate Battle Flag,' " he said about the work he calls "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag."
"And then they say, 'Turn this into a teaching moment.' Get out of here."
Classes were in session and fall was in the air at Gettysburg College on Thursday as police secured the perimeter of the art gallery. Outside, a few of the school's 2,500 students wandered a quadrangle lined with red antebellum buildings. Inside, students worked beside a uniformed guard, installing Sims's "Recoloration Proclamation: The Gettysburg Redress."
The exhibit displays Confederate battle flags, but in the colors of the African liberation movement (green, red and black), along with other colors. One hangs next to voting booths used in Florida for the 2000 presidential election. And across from them is the flag with white feathers on fuchsia and silver spangly stars -- a collaboration between Sims and a friend.
The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of bigotry and hatred to many people, but to others it is a way to remember the 258,000 Southerners who died in the Civil War. Members of the college art committee had hoped to use the exhibit to foster discussion of Gettysburg's history, but officials and students acknowledge that those plans have tripped, skidded and fallen flat.
Sims "picked a hot town for this," said Elizabeth Basham, 21, a senior from Lexington. "I'm upset he's not coming to explain what he was trying to do here."
Students should get behind the artist, she said. "But I think a lot of them are scared."
In an airy office with a bodyguard outside, college President Katherine Haley Will called the experience "fascinating." She has been in the job only since June 1 and said it's been "a really interesting issue as a new president" to try to balance "artistic expression and freedom of speech and the need to secure a campus of students you're responsible for."
The reality of the second part came to her when the FBI called last month. "You really do have to take them seriously," she said about threats to harm the school, the students and the administration. "So we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."
On Aug. 16, the school's public relations department sent out its news release with the headline "Artist to 'Lynch' Confederate Flag at Gettysburg College." It had the college's contact information and Sims's Web site address on it.
Back in Florida, Sims said he got hundreds of e-mails and calls. So did Will and other college officials, about 200 in all. "Well, maybe 300," said Patricia Lawson, a college public relations official.
"I've personally received an e-mail from a Klansman," Will said. Insofar as the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, can determine, several groups are behind the threats, the college said. A Confederate veterans group threatened to boycott the town, which makes its living from battlefield visitors. The town has given permits to groups whose leaders say they are bringing hundreds of demonstrators to protest at the exhibit opening Friday night.
Gettysburg is a pretty and sleepy tourist town that's been as affected by terrorism concerns, by young men and women sent off to war and by a struggling economy as the rest of the region.
"It's pretty bad timing," Sabrena Meyerhoff, a leader of the Adams County Republican Party, said of the art exhibit controversy. "And history is history. So many men died here; we should respect that."
At Ernie's Texas Lunch, a few blocks from the campus, "I hear the KKK's coming, skinheads, and that's totally ridiculous," said Jessica Stouffer, 30, ringing up a customer. "The man's an artist. It's nothing against the actual flag and what the flag stands for.
"But that's kind of scary, with the college kids. I mean, they're only 18 or so."
Molly Hutton, Schmucker Art Gallery director, led the committee that signed on to the gallows plan. She moved to Gettysburg two years ago from the San Francisco Bay area, where she was curator for a private art collection. She said the mock hanging of the flag was meant to be "something people couldn't avoid, that you would have to confront multiple times."
Hutton added: "We are an institution that witnessed the before and after of the Civil War. This was to try to begin a dialogue about one of the symbols of that conflict. . . . I think we're all a little disappointed."
Sims has done flag-related art shows in Harlem and Tampa, but he designed the gallows especially for Gettysburg. To him, the Confederate battle flag "speaks to a notion of white supremacy. It cannot be the symbol that represents southern heritage. It just can't."
He said he's not coming because "I have every right to lynch it [and] I wanted to do it outside."
About the people he has dealt with at the college, he said, "I think they're all great. They just got in over their heads."