By Brian Ives
Three years ago, Gary Rossington, a founding member of iconic Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, made a bold statement. The band, he said, were no longer going to use the Confederate flag in their merchandise because hate groups had “kidnapped” it.
“Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers,” Rossington told CNN. The decision, he said, was to avoid associating their music and their fans with any of “the race stuff” or “the bad things” associated with the flag. “We’re proud to be American,” Rossington said, explaining that they were more comfortable displaying the American flag.
The band eventually backpedaled a bit. For instance, when I interviewed Rossington, singer Johnny Van Zant and longtime guitarist Rickey Medlocke in 2012, Rossington said the band hadn’t actually gotten rid of the flag entirely after all. “Johnny still puts the Dixie flag around his microphone for ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ and we put a whole flag over the piano,” he explained. “We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But we’re still so proud to be Southern and to fly the Dixie flag.”
Medlocke expounded on the issue. “Here’s the deal,” he told me. “It’s not about hatred. The Confederate flag [issue] has been so blown out of proportion. If the South had won the war, that’d be the national flag. But they didn’t. It’s heritage and not hate.” But, he conceded: “The world is bad enough as it is. If we end up fighting amongst ourselves, that’s not where it’s at.”
Today, however—in the days after the tragic hate crime in Charleston, S.C. that left nine churchgoers dead—Lynyrd Skynyrd are not the only ones looking to distance themselves from the flag.
Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s racist ideology and his association with the Confederate flag became a flashpoint for Americans to renew the discussion as to whether the the flag was about “heritage not hate.” For instance, just this week lawmakers in South Carolina voted overwhelmingly to consider removing the Confederate flag from their Statehouse grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” said South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in a June 22 speech calling for the flag’s removal. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is a something we cannot stand.”
Four Confederate flags were also taken down from the grounds of the Alabama capitol on Wednesday (June 24) at the order of Gov. Robert Bentley. On top of that, retailers including Sears, Walmart, Amazon and eBay have stopped selling merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag.
Many Southerners wave/carry/wear the Confederate flag as a personal symbol; they see it as representing a heritage that’s an integral component of their identity. They’re from the South and they’re proud of it. But from another, truer perspective, the flag symbolizes decades—centuries, actually—of hatred, prejudice and oppression.
Interestingly, the flag’s widespread use is relatively recent. Originally the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (and often incorrectly referred to as the ‘Stars and Bars’), it didn’t gain popularity among Southerners until the mid-20th century—nearly 100 years after the Civil War had ended.
Even some of the states that display it prominently only started doing after World War II. According to a 2000 report by the Georgia State Senate research office, Georgia incorporated the Confederate logo into their state flag in 1956 as a symbol of resistance against the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled that segregating schools was unconstitutional. The same report said that in 1961, Alabama Governor George Wallace raised the Confederate flag over the State Capitol dome in Montgomery to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. The same year, South Carolina raised the battle flag on the grounds of its Capitol.
The Atlantic wrote in 2012 that “the flag’s most lasting legacy—and the source of much of the controversy today—can be traced to its use as a symbol of ‘Massive Resistance’ by the Dixiecrats beginning in 1948.” This legacy, writer and Civil War historian Kevin M. Levin adds, continued on “through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.”
With the rise of Southern rock in the 1970s, the flag found a new audience among music fans, too. Lynyrd Skynyrd often flew the flag during shows, and others picked up on it as well. The 1970s also saw the flag emblazoned on the General Lee, the famous muscle car on TV show The Dukes of Hazzard.
Lynyrd Skynyrd were unavailable to update their comments in 2012 regarding the Confederate flag. However two members of another band from the region, one that perhaps embodies Southern rock more than anyone over the past decade and a half, were available: the Drive-By Truckers.
Singer/songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have plenty to say on the topic, and their perspective is decidedly different from that of the average Skynyrd fan.
“I’m from Alabama,” says Patterson Hood, “I lived in the South my entire life. I have ancestors who fought in that ill-begotten war, but it’s way, way past time to move on … That [Civil] War was what, 150 years ago? It’s time to move on. It should have been a moot point years ago. The flag represents an act of war against the United States.”
Patterson says that no matter what heritage or history debate exists, the Confederate flag was always about racism.
“It’s like the swastika,” he says, “which has been around for thousands of years, but it will forever, for all eternity, be considered part of the Holocaust, one of the most terrible things humanity has ever done to itself. The Confederate flag is like that; and the events of last week added a new dimension to it.”
“The flag was put there to antagonize and intimidate,” he says, about its initial erection over the Capital. “During the Civil Rights era, Southern states started flying those flags and putting the logo on their state flags to remind black people what they thought their place was. It was just that simple.”
The thing that I’m always trying to understand is, why is it so important to so many Southerners?
“When you grow up here,” MikeCooley explains, “You study the Civil War in school, and all you know is it was the North and the South, and you’re from the South, so that’s your team. You know that black people were slaves at one time, but that’s so hard to get your head around. So you’re learning about this in your class, and you’re kind of rooting for the South to win. Because that’s your team. Some of us grew out of that, most of us didn’t.”
Hood says that this is changing over time. “The people who feel that way are probably going to feel that way until they die. But there are more and more people who live in the South who are a little more enlightened.”
Hood now lives in Athens, Georgia, a somewhat progressive zone in a very conservative state, but Cooley still resides in Alabama.
“I live in the reddest district in one of the reddest states in the country,” Cooley says. “And I don’t feel like I’m surrounded by brainwashed a–holes at all. But there’s a meanness in the way that the South expresses itself politically, that is not reflective of what kind of people they are, and most of it is rooted in Civil War resentment.”
He continues: “Those people are a shrinking minority, but we love to point the cameras at the most extreme people. When you see people protesting or organizing for some kind of liberal cause, it’s always the hippies in the drum circles that you see on TV. And when the media is looking at the conservative side, they look at the people who are foaming at the mouth.”
Both Hood and Cooley feel that most Southern states will end up disassociating from the rebel flag, but as much for economic reasons as anything else.
“I guarantee they’re getting pressure from a lot of companies and businesses, as they should, to move on,” Hood says. “Money talks, and that’s the language that the Republicans listen to.”
Cooley adds, “They’ll find a face-saving way to vote for it, a few politicians will get thrown under the bus, and they’ll probably be taken care of for life.”
But hopefully, they say, in the near future, the flag will be something that lives in museums, as a reminder of the past, not something that people display in the present.
“People say ‘The South will rise again,'” Hood says. “The South will never rise again as long as we keep our heads up our asses. I feel very strongly about it. I’m from Alabama. I lived in the South my entire life. I have ancestors who fought in that ill-begotten war, but it’s way, way past time to move on.”
But that “moving on” likely will take a while. Local and federal government can make any number of laws and proclamations to get rid of the Confederate flag from state buildings, and that’s a great start, because as the members of both the Drive-By Truckers and Lynyrd Skynyrd point out, that symbol has represented hate and prejudice for too long. However, it’s going to take more than a few proclamations to change how people feel about something that is so central to their personal identity.
To really heal the divide in this country, we can’t break our collective arms patting ourselves on the back for moving past Confederate symbolism. We all need to take a hard look at the causes for racism, and at what is driving those who stand on either side of the issue. Part of that will surely entail the recognition that anyone and everyone—Southerners included—be able to express their pride in their faith and values.
Or to return to Gary Rossington’s quote: “We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But we’re still so proud to be Southern.”