A confounding tale of two Confederate flags

By SCOTT SAALMAN
Guest Columnist

In the mid-1980s, a Confederate flag was used in the marketing of a Tom Petty tour promoting his quasi concept album, “Southern Accents.”

When he performed the song “Rebels,” which he described in Rolling Stone as being written from the point of view of a down-and-out southerner who almost guiltily “talks about the traditions that have been handed down from family to family,” a Rebel flag was displayed on stage.

Some fans saw this as an invitation to bring their own Confederate paraphernalia to his shows. When a Confederate flag bandanna was tossed on stage, Petty paused and asked the audience to refrain from bringing such items in the future “because this isn’t who we are.” Supposedly, the fans respected his wishes.

In that same 2015 article, the southern rocker reflected on that brief period as being a career blemish.

“I still feel bad about it. I’ve just always regretted it,” he wrote. “It was a downright stupid thing to do . . . people just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”

I admire Petty for clearing his conscience.

The public display of a Confederate flag, even on private property, is “just awful.”

Two recent Confederate flag sightings ignited my ire. Both symbols of racism were on private properties, yet they were in full view from public streets and sidewalks.

I guess I could’ve extended the flag owners the benefit of the doubt. There are people who argue that this doesn’t necessarily constitute a person as being racist. I’ve also heard people of a similar ilk say, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” A red flag in my book—anytime I hear it. Even if people are merely unwitting victims of familial hand-me-down hatred, their ignorance is inexcusable. As Bruce Springsteen states in his stark song, Nebraska, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

It’s an unconscionable act for anyone to display the Confederate flag.

It’s. Just. Awful.

In both cases, I took photos and posted them on Facebook.

One flag had The South Will Rise Again on it. An odd string of words considering the flag stood on what was once referred to as Union soil. As one Facebook friend commented, “Geography fail, to boot.”

Of the 40 who reacted, none were pro Confederate flag. In this tiny battle, The South Did Fall Again.

An acquaintance, who saw the post, approached me the next day. I detected an unusual edginess when I was told, “That person has a right to display his flag.”

I reacted quickly: “No he doesn’t.” But then I paused, took a deep breath, and said, “It is his right, I guess. But it’s also my right to not like it. That flag has terrible meaning for others.”

I drove by it a few weeks later. It was still the only Confederate flag in the neighborhood—in the entire town as far as I know. Why can’t he just move the flag to his basement, his basecamp of bitterness, and spare everyone his right to display symbolic hate?

The other Confederate flag, in my old hometown, hung vertically inside a storefront window, facing outwardly. A sign advertised it to be a video store. A large yellow flag was adjacent to the Rebel flag. It had the design of an automatic weapon on it, along with the words Come And Take It. The two flags touched snugly like familiar bedfellows.

As a kid, I used to trek to this very same building—it was a grocery store—to buy Wacky Packages trading cards that parodied consumer products, a great joy of my childhood. After I posted the picture of the building now fronted with the two provocative flags, I noticed my own reflection in the Confederate flag. Innocence lost.

Full disclosure: My great-great-great-grandfather Christian Saalman was one of 13,000 Union soldiers to perish in the Confederate-run Andersonville prison during the Civil War, yet this tragedy has never influenced my beliefs about the Confederate flag.

Of the 92 reacting to this Facebook photo, the vast majority were equally dismayed; however, there were some flag defenders.

“It’s been up for a LONG time and nobody had an issue with it until you had to come along and post this to Facebook,” was one comment.

One commenter said the flag owner was a “nice fella.” Another called him “great.” On both accounts, I never did state otherwise.

Apparently, the building was no longer a business, but someone’s home. “You have ZERO rights to tell somebody what they can or cannot put up in their home,” a person commented. Nowhere did I state otherwise. I merely called the flags an “atrocity.”

“Some people need to learn the meaning of the flag,” someone commented, defending a commenter defending the flag—clearly the comment was aimed at me.

Two weeks later, I returned to my hometown to attend a funeral for the great-great-granddaughter of Christian Saalman. The two flags were no longer displayed. Was this because of my passive-aggressive, flag-shaming social media post? I don’t know.

I prefer to think it was due to someone finally learning “the meaning of the flag.”




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