You can revoke my liberal credentials if you like, but the truth of the matter is this: I am a Rebel.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m a neo-Confederate or anything like that. And I’m certainly not some sort of Civil War buff or a Lost Causer who will never admit that the War Between the States was about one thing and one thing only: slavery. Truth be told, I’m Rebel because I love the Rebel flag. Always have. Always will.
When I say I love the Rebel flag, I’m not talking about the Stars and Bars or Secessionist flag or the more historically accurate Confederate battle flag. I’m referring to a very specific flag: the Rebel flag. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that used to fly above the Statehouse. The one that used to be waved at Clemson football games. The one that you can still see hanging off the front porches of dilapidated houses across this fair state. That flag. And for years I had one of my own.
I don’t remember exactly when I first came into possession of this particular Rebel flag, but I got it from my grandfather. He was from Alabama, and he was a racist.
That said, he was also a union man, and so he voted for the Democrats year after year until the day he died. Even though his fellow working-class whites had long sworn allegiance to the GOP, my grandpa knew that there was only one party that stood by the working man, and that was the Democratic Party. The Republicans were the party of the pencil pushers, the suits, the fat cats. He wasn’t about to let his own personal bigotry get in the way of doing what was right for himself.
I’m not saying my grandfather was a great man or even an admirable man. I don’t know what he thought the Rebel flag stood for, although I could guess, but I knew how I felt. For me, the flag was a big ole fuck you to the man.
During high school I hung that flag on the wall in my bedroom for the first time, amid the Iron Maiden posters, supermodel calendars, and an ever-growing collection of Jack Daniel’s bottles.
Occasionally, my buddies and I would head out into the woods, set up camp for the night, and get shitfaced. Needless to say, at some point someone would tie that Rebel flag around his neck and proclaim himself to be Captain Confederate. That person usually woke up in his own vomit.
After high school, I carried that flag with me to Clemson, and for two years, I hung it up in my dorm room. Behind it were my socks, my T-shirts, my underwear, and, every once in a while, a bong. On the wall directly opposite of the flag, my roommate had hung up a poster of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, but instead of the Stars and Stripes, the Rebel flag has been planted into the lunar surface. He bought the poster in the student union. It made some of our friends uncomfortable.
At some point, I took the flag down, and I packed it away. Now, I didn’t put it away because my feelings about the Rebel flag had changed. I was just moving around a lot. It was only years later during the battle over the Rebel flag on the Statehouse that my attitude about it changed.
At first, I thought the flag should stay on top of the dome. It was our history, a rather nasty bit of history to be sure, but it was ours and it told the rest of the U.S. exactly what they could do. It was a part of what we were in South Carolina.
And then I learned something that changed my mind. I had always thought the Rebel flag had been there since the Civil War. But then I found out I was wrong. The flag hadn’t been placed on top of the Statehouse until the 1960s, right as the civil rights movement was just starting to really gear up. Heck, it wasn’t even the actual flag of the Confederacy. And it was then that I began to see the flag for what it really was. It was a revisionist middle finger.
In part, I owe my conversion to Arthur Ravenel.
As many of you know, Cousin Arthur was a rather vocal Confederate flag supporter. In fact, during the Statehouse debate, Ravenel made a statement that will surely find its way into whatever obituary is written about him. He referred to the NAACP, the group that was behind a statewide protest of the flag, as the “national association of retarded people.” Later, he apologized to the mentally handicapped.
But Cousin Arthur wasn’t the only one to help me along. There was also H.K. Edgerton. Now, most folks don’t know of Edgerton. He’s a fringe player in the Confederate heritage movement, but he’s without a doubt its most curious member. He’s black.
I first met Edgerton during the summer of 2000. Dressed in a gray Confederate uniform and waving a Battle Flag, he was standing on the side of a street in downtown Greenville with a bunch of folks from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white pride group. I spoke to Edgerton and was immediately charmed by him. I also thought he was out of his gourd.
See, Edgerton was once the president of the Asheville, N.C., chapter of the NAACP. He was ousted from his position when a photograph of him standing with two men with ties to alleged white supremacists ran in the Asheville Citizen-Times. In the image, all three are holding white napkins — each one folded into the shape of a triangle — to their foreheads. It was a thing of bizarre beauty, an image that was so shocking because it simply could not be predicted.
I spoke with Edgerton about his beliefs that all was well between blacks and whites before the Civil War and wrote an article about him and black Confederates. Later, I met up with him again as he began his long march from Asheville to Texas carrying the Confederate battle flag.
After meeting Edgerton and reading about Cousin Arthur and his “heritage not hate” brethren, it seemed to me there were only two types of folks who were slavishly devoted to the Rebel flag. On the one hand, you had bigots like my grandpa. And on the other, you had folks who believed in a fantasyland version of the Old South, one that was straight out of Walt Disney’s Song of the South.
But while my feelings about the flag had changed, my fascination with it — and, more specifically, those who cherished it — did not. I felt compelled to learn more about the men and women who chose it as their cause. I became fascinated with the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group that believes the Southern states should secede from the United States. I attended Civil War reenactments. I also started following the civil war of sorts that was taking place in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a battle that pitted the historians in the organization against the “heritage not hate” activists.
Looking back, I’m not sure what happened to my grandpa’s flag. Perhaps it’s in a box at my parents’ house. Perhaps it got stuffed into a pile of Goodwill donations. Perhaps Captain Confederate arose one final time and ran off drunk and half-mad into the woods never to be seen again.
Maybe the time has come to find a new one and hang it on my wall. Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself of what you once were and what you are now. My grandpa was an asshole. And even though it’s in my blood, I’m trying not to be one.