By Steve Newton
The Rebel flag. The Southern Cross. Stars and Bars.
Whatever you call it, the battle flag of America’s former Confederate states has been getting a lot of attention lately—most of it in the wake of last June’s mass shooting of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine parishioners were killed by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who had posed for photos with a gun in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other.
Immediately following that hate-driven slaughter there were fervent calls from the American public and politicians alike to finally take down the divisive banner. Even staunch Republicans agreed it was time for the Stars and Bars to go. The age-old argument that it was more a symbol of Southern pride and heritage than one of racism and slavery was not holding up any more.
All the controversy got me ponderin’ my own thoughts on the Southern Cross—which weren’t too deep, to be honest. My main connection to it was through southern-rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Like other Canadians who were teenagers and fanatical rock fans in the ’70s, I just took the band’s waving of the Rebel flag as a tribute to its roots in Jacksonville, Florida, and a salute to its southern brethren like the Allman Brothers.
I remember even sending away for a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt that featured a skull wearing a cowboy hat and a Confederate bandana that looked something like this, except it also had pistols:
My 17-year-old mind thought it was badass.
It was my fierce loved of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd that drove me to pursue music-writing professionally, and back in 1997 I was thrilled to interview guitarist Rickey Medlocke in advance of a show in Vancouver with Paul Rodgers and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Knowing Medlocke was of Blackfoot ancestry—he’d even had a band named Blackfoot, which ruled—I asked him about the stereotype of southern-rock fans as Confederate flag–waving rednecks.
“Being that I am part Native American, I have to consider this thing,” he said, “and I think people have a misconception about the South. A lotta people will look at us and say, ‘Hey, you fly the rebel flag; the rebel flag was a symbol of oppression,’ and all that. Nah, not really. To us, it’s just a symbol of where we came from—the South—and whatever happened during that time, you know, now we should look past that stuff. We’re all here on this land together, and we should try to make the best of what we’ve got before it’s too late.”
Fifteen years later, Skynyrd was humming a different tune as far as the flag went. In a September 2012 interview on CNN the band appeared to be folding it up for good:
Original member Gary Rossington stated: “Through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped the Dixie or Rebel flag from the southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers, you know, that’s what it was about. And they kinda made it look bad in certain ways. So we didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”
Shortly after that headline-making announcement, though—and perhaps in response to a pro-flag backlash from its hardcore southern base—the band members backtracked a bit with a video of their own in which they professed to still using the flag in a limited capacity onstage.
The last time I saw Skynyrd in concert—just last March at Hard Rock Casino Vancouver—I didn’t notice the Confederate flag at all. I saw a helluva lot of American flag-waving, and some Canadian flag-waving too—mostly in jingoistic tribute to the two countries’ soldiers, out there putting their lives on the line in foreign lands for our “freedom”. But the Southern Cross not so much.
And you know what? I didn’t miss it one bit.
I like what Patterson Hood—Alabama-bred singer-guitarist for one of my other alltime favourite bands, the Drive-By Truckers—said in an essay for the New York Times Magazine last month. His group had brilliantly contemplated “the duality of the Southern thing” on its 2001 double-album, Southern Rock Opera.
“The album wrestled with how to be proud of where we came from while acknowledging and condemning the worst parts of our region’s history,” Hood wrote.
“If we want to truly honor our Southern forefathers,” he concluded in the piece, “we should do it by moving on from the symbols and prejudices of their time and building on the diversity, the art and the literary traditions we’ve inherited from them.
“It’s time to quit rallying around a flag that divides. And it is time for the South to—dare I say it?—rise up and show our nation what a beautiful place our region is, and what more it could become.”