Flag Poll

by Jason Zengerle | 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 assures me. 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."

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