Singer-songwrite Peter Mulvey wrote “Take Down Your Flag” on June 19th. That date is the anniversary of the abolition of slavery (Juneteenth) and it was just two days after nine people were murdered at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mulvey wrote the song as he waited to open for Ani DiFranco at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. Since then, over 200 artists have recorded the song, including DiFranco, Peter Yarrow, Keb’ Mo’, the Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark, and actor Jeff Daniels.
These artists should be commended for their musical stand against the Confederate battle flag of slavery. This should help open the door for the broadest possible discussion of the legacy of slavery in the United States. This is my contribution to that conversation. I wrote it for CounterPunch Magazine in 2013.
“Accidental Racist”–Days of Future Passed
LL Cool J was seventeen years old when I met him in 1985 at a screening of the rap film Krush Groove. He was straight out of middle class Queens, home to many who were taking hip-hop from ground zero in the South Bronx to the rest of the world. LL was near the cutting edge with diamond hard anthems like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells” with its war cry of “LL Cool J is hard as hell!” Today he’s soft, just another family-friendly TV star who occasionally puts out hip-hop albums that are, without exception, so bland as to be unlistenable.
Yet there he is on country star Brad Paisley’s new album, Wheelhouse, standing in for all black Americans on the song “Accidental Racist.” The track is turgid and clumsy, surprising coming from an artist as talented as Paisley. But what it says is even more surprising, given that Paisley’s 2009 album American Saturday Night turned country music stereotypes on their heads with its embrace of technology, immigration, and the civil rights movement.
“Accidental Racist” is a sung/rapped dialogue between Paisley and LL Cool J in which the country singer says he doesn’t mean anything offensive by wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on it: “I’m just a white man….caught between southern pride and southern blame.” He’s full of good intentions (“I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin”) but insists he’s “a proud rebel son.” There’s the standard apologia about how slavery (not mentioned by name) was a mistake that some other folks made a long time ago.
LL Cool J chimes in with a plea to be understood even though he wears sagging pants and gold chains. He says he’s always equated guys in cowboy hats with men in white hoods. After condemning slavery (this time by name), he apologizes for Sherman’s March and gives a shout-out to Robert E. Lee. LL declares that “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.”
In his review of Paisley’s Wheelhouse in PopMatters, Dave Heaton responds that “Accidental Racist is “saying we should forget about slavery—after all, it wasn’t our fault, it was just our ancestors—and ignore the ways that the legacy of slavery is still around us, every day, manifesting itself in flawed structures and situations within our society.”
On that song, Brad Paisley sings that he’s a “proud rebel son.” But he grew up in West Virginia, which became a Union state when it seceded from the Confederacy because it opposed slavery. Paisley now lives in Los Angeles (not too far from LL Cool J) where he’s married to Hollywood actress Kimberly Williams, a native of Rye, New York. Paisley isn’t speaking as himself on “Accidental Racist.” He’s casting himself in a role, playing a character who claims to speak for the white South.
Well, does he? There’s no simple answer to that question.
In 2001 in Mississippi, there was a vote on whether the 1894 state flag, with the Confederate battle flag reproduced in its upper left corner, should be retained or whether the state should adopt a new flag without the Stars and Bars. There was a large turnout and the 1894 flag won by a nearly two to one margin. The vote split almost entirely along racial lines.
On “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley says “When I put on that shirt the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan.” Even though personal, it’s hard to accept his benign assessment of the Confederate flag on a T-shirt as accurate. “Accidental Racist” venerates Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and skewers Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, whose march to the sea across Georgia helped to end the Civil War and the slavery which caused it.
The Confederate flag is not a symbol of misunderstandings about cowboy hats and gold chains. The Stars and Bars is the battle flag of a class of slaveowners who went to war in an attempt to expand slavery throughout the Western hemisphere. In Marbury, Alabama, Confederate flags fly each day at Confederate Memorial Park, which has an annual budget of $542,000, paid for entirely by taxpayers, both black and white. The more than one hundred thousand Southern whites and the hundreds of thousands of slaves who fought for the Union are not honored there or anywhere else.
“The slavery of the new Cotton Kingdom in the nineteenth century must either die or conquer a nation—it could not hesitate or pause.” —W.E.B. DuBois
Brad Paisley positions himself as a symbol of a monolithic white South. There is no such thing. A closer look at history shows there have always been two white Souths. Before the civil war, slaveowners forcefully ended poor whites’ traditional practice of using land in common for raising food and livestock. During the Civil War, there were massive desertions of whites from the Confederate army while the soldiers’ wives led bread riots across the South. After the Civil War, there were six million white sharecroppers as compared to five million black sharecroppers. Today, Southern-based oil barons control much of the world while in Mississippi there is a foreclosure every 22 minutes and the majority of these soon-to-be-homeless are white. The Confederate flag represents only one half of these unequal equations—the Southern one per cent.
One reason for confusion about this is that for so long the South seemed to be a society defined entirely by race. Blacks and whites were kept separate–at first by law, then by custom and coercion. But that reality is changing.
In 1963, the state of Virginia prosecuted an interracial couple for getting married. Eight years later, Duane Allman and Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band spent two days in an Alabama jail for the “crime” of attempting to have breakfast with a black man (their drummer). A generation after that, I found myself speaking to the Aliceville, Alabama High School football team. The school had been recently integrated because some white parents could no longer afford to send their children to segregated private academies. When I finished, some of the white players came up to me and thanked me for recognizing that not all Southern whites are racist.
On Super Tuesday in 1988, Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson got a shockingly big chunk of the white vote: 15 per cent in Georgia, 16 per cent in Mississippi, 20 per cent in Louisiana, and 25 per cent in South Carolina. Jackson did so well because he was a constant presence on picket lines, at homeless shelters, and at rallies of bankrupt farmers.
Between 1980 and 2010, the number of new marriages between blacks and whites in the South grew rapidly until it almost doubled the national average. Virginia—a state which once prosecuted an interracial married couple all the way to the Supreme Court—led the pack. One reason for the rapid increase in interracial marriages is what’s happening in the high schools.
In 1994 in Wedowee, Alabama, principal Hulond Humphries tried to prevent interracial dating at the prom for Randolph High School, which was 62% white. Humphries told junior class president ReVonda Bowen, who had a white father and a black mother, that her parents had “made a mistake” in conceiving her. This led to demonstrations and the establishment of freedom schools in African-American churches. The integrated prom did take place. Mayor Terry Graham said: “Black and white kids ride to the Dairy Queen together, they go to ball games and most people don’t think anything of it.”
In Charleston, Mississippi, the first integrated prom ever took place in 2008. In direct competition with a separate white prom, it won hands down. In 2013, the same thing happened at Wilcox County High School in southern Georgia, where the county school system is so poor that students attend classes just four days a week. Mixed dating is common there and three times as many kids went to the first integrated prom as to the white one.
This push for social integration didn’t take place in Southern hipster enclaves like Austin, Oxford, or Athens. It happened in desperately poor small towns, the kind of places that are often casually dismissed as “redneck.”
In 2009, I was at a planning meeting for a march that would go from the Mississippi Delta to Detroit for the 2010 U.S. Social Forum. The meeting was held in Glendora, Mississippi, a small impoverished town not far from legendary Highway 61. On the same day we were taken to see the spot in the river where the body of lynching victim Emmett Till was found in 1954, we watched two prisoners from the nearby private prison pick up the garbage in Glendora. They wore striped uniforms. They were white and their supervisor was black. When you turn off Highway 61 on the way to Glendora, you soon run into a magnificent new mansion right by the road, just a stone’s throw from the Hopson plantation. Its owners are black. In nearby Clarksdale, some black families now have the money to send their kids to private academies.
Poverty (and wealth) continue to spread across racial lines, yet despite recent changes, the South is hardly post-racial. For instance, black median income in Mississippi is only 51% of white median income. A white friend of mine who lives in the South and is married to a black woman tells me that not only are they harassed but that in his small town young men driving pickup trucks and waving Confederate flags often chase blacks at night. As Dave Heaton wrote, “The legacy of slavery is still around us.”
It wasn’t long ago that “Southern” was assumed simply to mean “white.” Today, according to The New Mind of the South author Tracy Thompson, black people who live in the South are more likely than their white neighbors to identify themselves as Southerners. Meanwhile, there are millions of Mexican immigrants living all across the South. Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Orlando have some of the nation’s fastest-growing foreign populations. There is more internal migration in the United States to the South than to any other region.
The pace of change below the Mason-Dixon line is likely to increase. White Southerners under 30 voted for Obama in 2012 at roughly the same rate (40 per cent) as white Americans generally (43%). The fact that Obama is no improvement on his predecessor doesn’t diminish the fact that an important social barrier is being breached. There is a growing generation gap in the South and all the former Confederate states except Mississippi and Louisiana gained between 5 and 10 per cent in under age ten population in the last decade (Texas was at 17 per cent). During the same period of time, under age ten populations declined in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and California.
The multi-racial, multi-lingual South will have a major impact on the 21st century. “Accidental Racist,” despite its flaws, is one reflection of that. It’s one of many rap/country collaborations (Taylor Swift/Kendrick Lamar, Tim McGraw/Nelly, Snoop Dogg/Willie Nelson) that reflect the blurring of racial lines. Nashville insiders tell me that not only is the motive behind these records mostly to create new marketing tools, but that they are being promoted only to country audiences. But that’s just typical music industry cynicism and ignorance. If combining rap and country reaches a larger audience, that indicates that the country audience is becoming more open-minded. Can country music serve to counter the media image of the black thug? Can hip-hop be a vehicle for overcoming redneck stereotypes? We may be about to find out.
But the potential implications of the rap/country fusion go far beyond the “forgive and forget” mantra of “Accidental Racist.” There are indications that a significant section of the South is straining to find a way to move forward politically.
For example, a study by the Institute for Southern Studies revealed the South to be the most anti-war region of the country. Blacks and whites in Tennessee sat in at the Democratic governor’s office for over three months to try to prevent the end of their health care coverage. In 2004, Alabama voters opted to keep the section of their state constitution which said that there is no right to public education. But in 2012, that relic of segregation was voted out by 61% of voters. They were influenced by the fact that during the previous five years funding for public education in Alabama had been cut by more than $1 billion.
Even the Mississippi elections of the early 21st century, which seemed to verify the strength of the old segregated South, revealed that something new was struggling to be born.
“Consider the case of Senate District 4, which occupies the far northeastern corner of the state” write Jere Nash and Andy Taggart in Mississippi Politics: the Struggle for Power 1976-2006. “Less than 10 per cent of its voters are African American and, since 1992 Travis Little has served as its senator. If there is a family that is synonymous with the local politics of a county, it is the Little family in Alcorn County. In 2003, Little switched parties and ran for reelection as a Republican. His lone Democratic opponent was Eric Powell, a native of Alcorn County who worked at the local paper mill in Tishomingo County. What makes this story noteworthy is that Powell is black. The new flag received 2,161 votes in this district compared to 12,865 for the 1894 flag. In the 2003 general election, however, Powell came close to winning, receiving 7,819 votes to Little’s 8,449 votes. The contrast was even more telling in Powell’s home county of Tishomingo, where the 1894 flag won 2,262 to 163 in those areas allocated to his senate district. Powell defeated Little in those same precincts 1,664 to 1,271.”
A black worker nearly defeats a scion of the Mississippi ruling class in a district that’s over 90 per cent white. Not only that, five years later Eric Powell was elected State Senator from District 4. One of his first acts in office was to successfully sponsor a bill which raised unemployment benefits.
All in all, it sounds like a different song of the South is being written. We should be ready to hear it.