NOVEMBER 24, 2003
Kirk Lyons doesn't own a pickup truck, but his Toyota Camry sports a
Confederate-flag bumper sticker. He flies a real Confederate flag at
his home on Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday.
And the flag isn't just a personal cause for Lyons. It's
professional. A lawyer here in western North Carolina, Lyons runs
the Southern Resource Legal Center (srlc)--a self- described "Civil
Rights Law Firm for Confederate Southern Americans" that provides
legal representation to people who have been forbidden from
displaying Confederate flags at their workplaces or schools. So,
when Howard Dean told an Iowa reporter last month that he wanted to
be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup
trucks," Lyons took note. "When I heard what [Dean] said, my ears
perked up," Lyons recalls as he sits in the apartment-- cluttered
with paperwork and Confederate paraphernalia--that serves as the
srlc's office. "I said, 'Here's a guy that's a little different from
your average Democrat.'"Never mind that Lyons doesn't like Dean's positions on abortion,
guns, and gay civil unions. Or that he also disagrees with Dean
over the pocketbook issues--health care, the economy--that the
former Vermont governor thinks will resonate with white
working-class voters in the South. If Dean actually wanted the
support of Confederate-flag-fliers, Lyons says, then Dean would have
his vote. "It would be enough for me," Lyons explains, "seeing as
how almost everybody else on the political spectrum is against ...
Confederate symbols in the national marketplace of ideas."
But Lyons won't be hosting a Dean Meetup anytime soon. After hearing
Dean's apology for his Confederate-flag remarks, in which he
labeled the flag "loathsome" and "racist," Lyons could only shake
his head. "If he had stuck by his guns without waffling and without
the inevitable apologies and mea culpas and breast-beating and all
that, I think that he would have a good shot at picking up a lot of
conservative white voters in the South," he says. "Dean basically
showed that he doesn't have courage. The gratuitous insults to the
Confederate flag are what turned me against him."
Of course, Lyons isn't your typical Confederate-flagflier. For one
thing, it's pretty much his defining issue. For another, the
Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups allege that Lyons is a
prominent white supremacist. (Lyons has denied the charge.) But, if
Lyons isn't emblematic of Confederate- flag devotees, who is? The
answer may be ... nobody.
When Dean said he wanted to be the candidate of guys with
Confederate flags in their pickup trucks, he employed the image to
symbolize working-class Southern whites. But it was a bad symbol to
use--not just because of its racial overtones, but because it isn't
very accurate. A 1993 poll by the Odum Institute for Research in
Social Science at the University of North Carolina found that,
while nearly three out of four Southerners considered the
Confederate flag a symbol of regional heritage and pride--rather
than a symbol of racial conflict--only 11 percent of Southerners
actually owned a Confederate flag. And it's a good bet that an even
smaller minority displays it. As the University of North Carolina's
John Shelton Reed, the eminent Southern sociologist who helped
conduct the survey, says, "I've got a picture on the wall of the
famous 'Lost Cause' print of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson's
last meeting. But it's in my study, not in my dining room, because I
don't want to have to explain it."
Indeed, tracking down actual Confederate flags requires some effort.
While my hometown of Chapel Hill has plenty of dean for america
bumper stickers, I can't find any cars with Confederate flags
there. And even after I leave Chapel Hill's liberal oasis to go on
my 200-mile drive along Interstate 40 to Black Mountain, where
Lyons lives, I spot only three vehicles--two pickups and one
horse-trailer--with Confederate-flag stickers or license plates. In
and around Black Mountain, I cruise a couple of shopping-mall
parking lots and a trailer park and find no flags at all. When I
ask Lyons for places to find more flag- wavers, even he seems a bit
stumped. He has to call a friend, Rick, who suggests I go to
Smiley's Flea Market, located about 20 miles southwest in a small
town called Fletcher. "You'll see some flags at Smiley's," Rick
Although Smiley's bills itself as "The South's Largest 'Yard Sale,'"
it's not exactly crawling with emblems of the Confederacy: In my
first half-hour there, I see more Mexican flags than Confederate
ones. But I do eventually find a store that sells Confederate flags
amid an assortment of glass pipes and Playboy back issues. A
grizzled, tattooed man named Gilbert Johnson is working behind the
counter--it's his sister-in-law's shop, he explains--and he has his
own baseball cap with a Confederate-flag design. Johnson says he was
born in Buffalo and that, even though he moved down South about 30
years ago, he's not that interested in Southern heritage. So why
does he wear the hat? "I hang out in biker bars," he says. "It's a
rebel thing." I ask Johnson if he has heard about Dean's
Confederate-flag remarks, and he shakes his head. I ask him if he's
heard of Dean. He says no. "I've got no use for politics," he tells
me. "It's all a money game." He adds, "The best president we ever
had was Nixon-- and they impeached his ass."
A few stalls down from Johnson's sister-in-law's setup is a shop
called "Southern Heritage," which sells Confederate flags and
concrete lawn ornaments. It's empty save for a soft-spoken,
slightly effeminate man named Robbie, who's minding the store for
the owners. Robbie says that he doesn't really know much about the
Confederate flags, other than that they don't seem to sell as well
as the lawn ornaments. As for Howard Dean and politics in general,
he pleads ignorance on that, too. "I'm countrified," he apologizes.
"I do like President Bush," he says, "because he's a Christian."
Not satisfied with the sampling of opinion at Smiley's, I call
Lyons's friend Rick to ask him if he has any more suggestions. He
tells me he's going to get in touch with some friends--"just some
regular guys with Confederate flags"--to see if they'd be available
to talk, and later he gives me the phone number of a man named Jeff
Cordell. I call Cordell, who says to meet him the next morning at
the Western Sizzlin restaurant in Marion, about 20 miles east of
Black Mountain. "I'll be the guy waiting out front next to the black
pickup truck with the Confederate flag," he advises me.
Cordell brings a friend, David Padgett, who drives a red pickup
truck with a Confederate-flag license plate, and we sit down in a
back room of the Western Sizzlin just before the after-church crowd
arrives. Cordell and Padgett are both members of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans, and, over steaks and fries, they tell me they
display the flag to honor their ancestors who fought in the War of
Northern Aggression. ("We don't say the C.W. word," Cordell
whispers.) "White people who fly it to offend someone need better
education about what the flag stands for," Cordell says. "And I
don't see how blacks, if they are educated to see that it's a
Christian symbol, could still think it's a problem."
Both men are angry with Dean for his Confederate-flag remarks.
Cordell believes Dean's original comment was condescending: "I
think when he said it, he meant it in a broad, stereotypical,
good-old-boy, redneck, hillbilly way. The way Dean thinks of us,
we're just white trash." Padgett is angry about the way Dean
eventually denounced the flag: "He done offended me." But, as we
talk about Dean and what he was trying to say when he uttered his
line about the Confederate flag, the two men soften. I read them a
quote from Dean, in which he talks about the many Southern white
children who don't have health insurance and who go to bad public
schools. "We have had Southern, white working people voting
Republican for thirty years, and they've got nothing to show for
it," I tell them Dean said. They both nod. Padgett, who works at a
Broyhill furniture factory, says his company has recently closed
three plants and that he'd support a politician who stanched the
flow of jobs to Mexico and China. Cordell says, "I'll vote for
whichever candidate has a record of trying to improve health care,
education, and the economy. Those are the three biggies for me."
So, I interject, it sounds like the two men could vote for someone
like Dean. After all, he's saying he'll fix the problems they care
about most. But Cordell and Padgett aren't buying it. "If he lived
down here and sent his kids to the schools, that would mean a lot
to me," Cordell says. "But how does someone from up North know what
the South's problems are? He hasn't walked a mile in our shoes." So
does Dean have any chance of being the candidate for guys with
Confederate flags in their pickup trucks? I ask. Cordell snorts.
"He's got about a snowball's chance in Alabama."