by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2020
1. Lynyrd Skynyrd High School
I’m sure I’d heard “Free Bird” before my early teenage friend Monica’s father was murdered, before “Free Bird” was played at his funeral, before Monica played the song over and over again for weeks.
In high school on Jacksonville’s Westside in the early 1990s, “Free Bird” was a regular punchline. When someone said something schmaltzy, a metalhead pretended to hold up a cigarette lighter at a concert, wave it side to side in the air and yell, “Free Bird!” Even the electric guitar, which metalheads loved in aggressive L.A. and San Francisco Bay Area bands like Metallica and Exodus and Slayer, sounded backward and whiney when Skynyrd sang, “I’m as free as a bird now.”
I remember Kurt and Frank and some of my high school friends who played in a thrash metal band, out in the courtyard at lunchtime at the school named for the early KKK leader, joking about some bootleg pornographic film in which somebody from Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared. I pretended to laugh and felt depressed.
Kids knew of the Allman Brothers Band, but didn’t much know their music. The band sounded no less Southern than Skynyrd, but seemed a world apart: there was something more sophisticated about them. Still, that was music that kids’ fathers liked. It wasn’t ours. There was also something uncool about Skynyrd’s Confederate flag, not that we understood history. In early ’90s Jax, it was the flag of old losers who still thought they were young rockers. Kids wore collections of black t-shirts showcasing punk and metal bands, but nobody cool wore the Confederate flag.
When I rented an apartment in Five Points in 2003, just divorced, hardly eating, my downstairs neighbor was a high school music teacher, bald on top, hair long in the back, with a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band who practiced beneath my kitchen.
When I lived on the Northside about five years later, in a mostly black neighborhood a few blocks south of the Trout River, a Confederate flag emblazoned with “Lynyrd Skynyrd” hung over the front window-unit air conditioner across the street. The man who lived there once shattered a window by throwing his dog through it. The boy who lived there yelled “Nigger” at a couple of black boys walking down Clinton Street and minding their own business.
The only times anyone seemed to know Jacksonville when I visited someplace else, at a Midwest Modern Language Association conference in Milwaukee, at a Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego, they knew it, with a smirk, in relation to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Then there’s the late 20-teens sitcom The Good Place and Jason Mendoza, its character from Jacksonville. He says Jax is “one of the top 10 swamp cities in Northeast Florida,” that monster trucks serve as taxis, that he graduated from Lynyrd Skynyrd High School.
The school, he says, “was really just a bunch of tugboats tied together.” When someone asks if students got seasick, he says no, that the boats “were tied together in a junkyard. It wasn’t a very good school. For most of my classes, we just sold dirty magazines door to door.”
2. Molly Hatchet Baptist Church
When I was 13 years old, I dug it when Steve Dozier at Blanding Boulevard Baptist Church sang religious songs that blasted out the amps and sounded like singer Danny Joe Brown of the 1970s Jax-born Southern Rock band Molly Hatchet. (It seemed a strange departure for a church that claimed all rock music was “satanic.”) At a church camp on the St. Marys River, Dozier coached us to fire his shotgun, which kicked my shoulder so hard it almost knocked me down. I swam from Florida to Georgia and back and wondered how you could know, if you fired guns in the woods, that you hadn’t just killed somebody in the distance.
My father, born in the 1920s, made fun, in the late 1980s, of my Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang cassette tapes, telling me they sounded “like a bunch of niggers yellin’ at each other,” and Jimbo Robinson, an ancient cousin of my father’s whom we met in Macon County, Georgia in the mid 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 while telling the story, and 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.
I carried all that around in my head and my gut and grew sick of the Confederate flag. 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 students to do “Johnny Rebs,” everywhere else known as “jumping jacks,” in honor of the school mascot, Johnny Rebel, a big-mustached, red-uniformed, pistol-toting Confederate.
3. “We Heard it Hurt Certain People’s Feelings”
In a 2012 interview, three Lynyrd Skynyrd members talk about how they’d promoted the Confederate flag for decades. They continually confuse and conflate the South with the Confederacy. A very drunk-sounding Gary Rossington, a Skynyrd founding guitarist, complains that “everybody’s got so politically correct in the last few years.”
Rossington says, “Throughout the years, we heard it hurt certain people’s feelings, especially, uh, African American people, and there’s a lot of our fans are, show up like that, and we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but we’re still so proud to be Southern and to fly the Dixie flag, that’s fine, and we didn’t mean anything by saying that we didn’t fly it because of Southern reasons, it was for other reasons, but we still do now, we show it here and there, and I don’t know.”
Johnny Van Zant, singer and brother of original singer Ronnie Van Zant, more coherently adds, “The flag’s been associated with so many hate groups and we can understand that, you know.” He says, “We’re all fans of the blues, which was created by black artists, you know, and we would go against what we feel and love, and that’s what Lynyrd Skynyrd’s been about. You listen to the songs. I mean it’s the blues, it’s rock ’n roll, it’s country. You know, it has influences from British rock. You know, so that would be so stupid of us to even do somethin’ like that, and uh, but you know, we love where we’re from. And uh, proud to be from the South.”
Just as soon as he makes cogent points, points that echo what Gregg Allman says three years later, he backtracks and confuses the South with the Confederacy: “We like grits, we say ‘y’all.’” He laughs and says, “We even have an Indian in the group,” indicating guitarist Richard Medlocke, once the guitarist for Southern Rock band Blackfoot, formed in Jacksonville in 1970. Medlocke points to a tattoo of the word “Indian” on his forearm, snarls and growls, “Read ’em and weep.”
The original Skynyrd never cared about hurting anybody’s feelings. Newspapers reported on bar fights everywhere they went on tour. When fans raged against the band’s new take on the Confederate flag, the band took it back. Headlines said, “Fans’ Outrage Prompts Lynyrd Skynyrd to Keep Confederate Flag” and “Skynyrd Guitarist Clarifies Comment: Confederate Flag Will Fly ‘Every Night’ On Stage.”
4. Burning Confederate Flags for the Fourth of July
In 1922, at the height of national 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 though the South couldn’t and wouldn’t thrive by burying the CSA, still haven’t conceded.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 American flags in Central Park just two weeks before without arrest.
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 founded 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.
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 had spent the early 21st century reappropriating the Confederate 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.
5. Burn Every One of ’Em
Though Lynyrd Skynyrd made the Confederate flag theirs, the Allman Brothers Band abandoned its use as a symbol of rebellion early on. It wasn’t enough that people called it a “rebel flag.” What had that rebellion rebelled against and stood for? And why wouldn’t you rebel against that rebellion?
Gregg Allman said his relationship with black musicians was enough for him to spurn symbols of white supremacism. No question. Easily resolved. Simple. Johnny Lee Johnson, who later changed his name to Jai Johanny Johanson, the black drummer known by the name of Jaimoe, helped found the Allman Brothers Band.
“I was taught to play music by these very, very kind older black men,” Gregg Allman told a blogger at liveforlivemusic.com in 2015. “My best friend in the world is a black man.” The Confederacy, in its own words, defined itself by its investment in slavery, which nullified the question of whether or not to use its flag. “I say,” Allman said, “‘Burn every one of them.’”