Confederate Flag Burnings (and the Rebellions of my Youth)

by Tim Gilmore, 9/3/2020

1.

I couldn’t have said what made the difference. In high school, in the early 1990s, Jacksonville teenagers seemed to hate Lynyrd Skynyrd, but not the Allman Brothers Band.

Gregg Allman had no less a Southern accent than Ronnie Van Zant singing “Freebird.” Even the electric guitar, which many of the kids I knew loved in aggressive San Francisco Bay Area “thrash metal” bands like Metallica and Exodus and Slayer, sounded backward and whiney when Skynyrd sang, “I’m as free as a bird now.”

I only half understood it had something to do with the Confederate flag, with how my fundamentalist Baptist parents had sheltered me from rock music, how, shortly after my mother died when I was 12, when I first explored music beyond gospel and country on my own, my father called my cassette tapes of Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang “nigger music.”

2.

So at 16 years old, I launched myself skinny and angry through mosh pits at concerts for Megadeth at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium on St. Johns Bluff Road South, Kreator downtown at the Milk Bar, and Anthrax at some small club in Orlando. (Anthrax was touring with Iron Maiden, whose vocalist Bruce Dickinson, we’d heard, had a sore throat; arena cancelled, Anthrax found a club.) What songs Kreator, the best of the Big Four of Teutonic thrash metal, performed, whether “Ripping Corpse,” “Death is Your Savior” or “Pleasure to Kill,” I can’t recall, but I said for years that wherever I went in that small club, singer Mille Petrozza’s eyes seemed constantly to look into mine.

My friends and I performed in Airband two years in a row. “Airband” was “air guitar,” pretending to play the guitar with nothing but air, multiplied by the whole band. The drama teacher, or “drama coach,” Jon Nerf, sponsored it. I was all tall skinny limbs, long hair down my back. One year I played the bassist for Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, and another year I was the singer for the thrash band Testament. A cheerleader told me later, “You looked cool,” but the jocks and rednecks who ran the school threw ice and booed us and drowned us in disapproval. Somewhere I may still have the cassette tape.

Well before we drove down to Orlando in 1991 to see Jane’s Addiction and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Henry Rollins and Ice-T’s band Body Count and Nine Inch Nails on the first Lollapalooza tour, I’d decided Lynyrd Skynyrd was next to the last band I’d ever willingly hear. Even as I dove from the stage to the top of the crowd and moshed and felt the crowd crushing me, some nebulous idea congealed, somewhere between cerebral wiring and my eager-anger chimp amygdala, that Skynyrd was backward of backward, but the Allman Brothers had talent and at least a sophisticated knowledge of the roots of their own music. Didn’t care for ’em, but had to admit respect.

I’ll always cherish the memories of scrounging through some vintage clothing store somewhere outside of Orlando with my friends, of laying back on towels when the crowd up front had exhausted me and the black heavy metal band Living Color did a mocking rendition of racist Guns N’ Roses.

I didn’t think of my origins then as “white trash,” but I’d learn later that others did. My mother’s family thought of itself in somewhat Southern aristocratic terms, but her racism, in hindsight, could be starker and more violent than that of my father, a son of Georgia sharecroppers, whose own father’s “best friend,” who always ate outside while the family had dinner in the house, was the son of slaves. I didn’t understand this context as a teenager. I just thought I and my friends were “different” and “outsiders” and “artists,” though I couldn’t have really defined those terms.

Recently a friend from those years, whom I’d known from first grade at Temple Christian Academy and loved as dearly as any friend I’ve ever known, lamented that our kids’ generation lives much more of an indoor life and doesn’t roam about in large groups of friends as we did. I agreed. Then she mentioned the time we were tripping on LSD and walking around another friend’s neighborhood well after midnight in the rain and our socks were coming loose and we made them flap like our feet were thrice their actual length. And I love that memory. I’d forgotten it. I remember it. And I love it. But my kids are twice as secure and capable and confident as I was at their age and I don’t want them tripping on acid and walking Jacksonville’s Westside at two a.m. And oh how these feelings split me right down the middle!

3.

Surely it never was fair. I’ve never liked Southern Rock. When I was 13 years old, however, I dug when Steve Dozier at Blanding Boulevard Baptist Church sang religious songs that blasted out the amps and sounded like Molly Hatchet’s singer Danny Joe Brown. Later, at a church camp on the St. Mary’s River, he coached us to shoot his shotgun, which kicked my shoulder so hard it almost knocked me down. I swam from Florida to Georgia and back and wondered, as I’ve often wondered since, how you could know, if you fired guns in the woods, that you hadn’t just killed somebody in the distance.

At some point, and I don’t know when, it seemed to matter that Lynyrd Skynyrd performed with giant Confederate flags on the stage behind them, giant Confederate flags in their hands, giant Confederate flags on their hats. At some point in the early 1990s, Southern kids in the city took to understanding those brandishings of Confederate flags as badges of ignorance and quite likely stupidity.

Though my father made fun of my Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang cassette tapes in 1987, telling me they sounded “like a bunch of niggers yellin’ at each other,” and though Jimbo Robinson, an ancient cousin of my father’s whom we met in Macon County, Georgia in the late 1990s, showed us his father’s Confederate battle flag and laughed about a time, must’ve been the 1930s, when his father encouraged him to jump from a car and tackle a “nigger” and “cut his head off,” not that he did it, but he sure did laugh about the story, and though my father’s favorite uncle, Phil Gilmore, a police officer in Montezuma, Americus and Oglethorpe, Georgia, fired his pistol through his own hand once and killed a black man, and told my father how he’d knock his nightstick into black boys’ legs when he found them walking impudently on the sidewalk next to whites…

(The preceding paragraph wore me out.)

Nobody told me, directly, what to think of Confederate flags, but I got sick enough of them on my own. My high school was named for the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the 1950s and ’60s, public schools across the South took the names of Confederate generals in response to the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to desegregate schools. Coaches at Forrest, teaching Physical Education, required all students to do “Johnny Rebs,” everywhere else known as “jumping jacks,” in honor of the school mascot, a red-mustached, pistol-toting Confederate.

Every now and then, I’d hear Allman Brothers’ songs, “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” and “Hot ’lanta,” and that was okay, and I might get lost in the noodling guitar, though they never did for me what bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Metal Church and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains but also Pink Floyd and The Doors did, but hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”—blame it on the particular years I hit adolescence or specific trends in Jacksonville’s working class suburban rebellions or something else—curdled something dead in my heart and my head.

4.

But what about that flag? I won’t say I understood history well then. I think I thought it was the flag of assholes, of rednecks, of slightly older men, losers, who liked to beat up adolescent boys with weird hair, long or purple, and piercings any- or everywhere.

I remember a Social Studies teacher, big belly and mustache, but provocative, I wish I could remember his name, who pulled the American flag from its classroom holder and threw it on the floor. We all gasped. We were shocked. We applauded an older adult who would do something he shouldn’t do. We were also onto him as trying to seem cool as an older adult doing something he shouldn’t. But he did make us think.

Geraldo Rivera was showing videos of skinheads burning flags. None of us took him seriously. He’d also warned that teens wearing hightop Converse sneakers might well be Satanists. We love him and hated him. He made us laugh. But I wondered about other flags. I think I just thought of it as the redneck flag.

5.

In 1922, at the height of Ku Klux Klan membership, Jim Crow legislation and the “Lost Cause Movement” that sought to whitewash the goals of the Confederacy from a defense of its economic investment in slavery to a chivalrous response to “Northern tyranny,” a Minnesota encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic recommended returning Confederate flags seized as war trophies to the South where they would be burned on the Fourth of July.

The G.A.R. was a fraternity of United States veterans who’d fought the Confederacy in the Civil War. The August 7, 1922 edition of The [Bemidji, Minnesota] Pioneer quoted former G.A.R. National Commander Judge Ell Torrance: “If I were a member of the Fourth Minnesota, who captured those flags, I would be very proud and I think I would be willing to walk all the way down to Mississippi” to return them. Members of the G.A.R. seemed to think Southerners would be proud as reunited Americans to receive and burn the old battle flags.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The return never happened. Certain self-identified Southerners, those who think non-neo-Confederate Southerners aren’t Southern, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, still synonymizing The South with The Confederacy, as though The Confederate States of America hadn’t arrived stillborn, as the South couldn’t and wouldn’t thrive by burying the CSA, still despise the North and its cultural influence and governance.

On May 16, 1967, a black pastor named A. Kendall Smith was arrested for burning a Confederate flag in Manhattan. White Vietnam War protestors had burnt oversized American flags in Central Park just two weeks before and faced no arrests.

Smith chaired the Harlem Citizens for Community Action and wore a white poncho cut like Ku Klux Klan regalia to protest “the Southern treatment” of black people in New York City, a century after Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens spoke in Savannah, Georgia, pronouncing the Confederacy dependent on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Two years after Smith’s arrest in New York, Brett Bursey, a University of South Carolina student, was arrested for burning a Confederate flag outside the house of the school’s president. As the Associated Press reported, South Carolina law “forbids mutilation” of flags of individual states, of the United States and of the Confederate States of America. Maximum penalties were 30 days in jail and a fine of $100. Half a century later, Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, proudly proclaimed he was still out on bond.

These facts make the kid in me whose father called Stevie Wonder’s Hotter than July “nigger music” and whose Trinity Christian Academy middle school administrators claimed listened to Led Zeppelin could make you kill your parents for Satan, though Trinity’s chief administrator and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, with its ties to Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell and his political network, The Moral Majority, which changed the direction of American politics across my lifetime thus far—those facts, those facts made me wish to defy them, just on principle.

A July 1989 Alabama public opinion poll found that most Alabamans didn’t believe the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment applied to actions. They definitely didn’t think it applied to burning flags, whether American or Confederate. Black Alabamans were just as opposed to the legality of burning Confederate flags as were whites.

By 2020, the black Detroit-based artist John Sims has spent the early 21st century reappropriating the Confederate battle flag as a means of “creative resistance space.” He’s recolored flags in the red, black and green of Black Nationalism, a “Recoloration Proclamation,” lynched the Confederate flag by hanging it from gallows and burning and burying it, and organized “flag funerals” across the South for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

6.

I claim no highest ground from my adolescence. What older people always say, attempting to squash the opinions of those younger, was true. I didn’t necessarily know what I was talking about.

The banner I most claim from those years is that of pure rebellion. All these years later, I can’t praise pure rebellion as anything more than it is. It’s spirited and demands the status quo question itself, and that’s valuable. Perhaps it’s unfair to shut it down for not having lived long enough to know what it doesn’t know.

Young people can be spectacularly wrong, since they’ve not collected knowledge for long, not had the chance to try to chisel it into wisdom, but young people can be right in ways that maddens their elders, because they see newly while their elders, who still imagine themselves young, refuse to recognize they’ve fossilized. I hope that, as I’ve grown older, I still recognize these faults and work to correct them down in myself.

Weirdly I now apply these terms to rock bands older than me as though understand by people younger. I hope it’s ever true that younger people can better keep minds open to other ways of seeing and being, especially since part of their initial mark in the world is resistance to elders. Though I’m now elder, I identify still as young rebel, questioner, defender of those I was not born to be.

Though Lynyrd Skynyrd made the Confederate flag theirs, the Allman Brothers abandoned its use as a symbol of rebellion early on. It wasn’t enough that people called it a “rebel flag.” The questions were what that rebellion stood against and why you wouldn’t rebel against that rebellion. Johnny Lee Johnson, his name later changed to Jai Johanny Johanson, the drummer known by the name of Jaimoe, a black man, helped found the Allman Brothers Band.

“I was taught to play music,” Gregg Allman said in July 2015, not two years before his abuse of his liver caught up with him and killed him, “by these very, very kind older black men. My best friend in the world is a black man. If people are gonna look at the flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say, ‘Burn every one of them.’”