Sign up for great stories from the American South.

COME IN AND STAY AWHILE

The Big Red F.U.

Old Crow Medicine Show leader Ketch Secor shares his hopes about what the removal of the battle flag will mean for his children.

Once, after a soundcheck in a small club in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, I walked a few blocks up to the capitol building; there was something I wanted to see. 

It was a good walk, hot in the late spring, and I wiped the sweat off with my bandana as I found the magnolia-edged lawn of the capitol complex. Coming to Columbia was a long-awaited reunion, my first time in that capital city since I was in the second grade, when I went to a basketball tournament there. The simple premise: Win the first game, play six more, stay at a fancy hotel, ride the school bus home, and get a team picture made in the parish hall of St. Thaddeus with the shiny trophy engraved “1985 Palmetto State Youth Church League Basketball Champions.” Problem was we lost the first game, so instead of being Palmetto State heroes we just went to Bojangles then hang-dogged the three hours back to Aiken. 

I guess I always felt like I had left something on the table in Columbia, so it was good to be back. Plus, I was on a mission: There was something I had to see before it was gone. 

Living in South Carolina where there were no professional sports teams to root for, a kid’s mind need not wander far to find native sons to wonder about. I wondered about Strom Thurmond, Refrigerator Perry, Francis Marion—the Swampfox, Denmark Vesey—the freeman. I wondered about James Brown. Knowing the history of these native sons meant knowing the coded words that described them. It was from Denmark Vesey I learned the words “slave revolt.” It was from James Brown I learned the words “crack cocaine.” It was from Strom Thurmond I learned the words “black mistress.” 

I only lived one year in South Carolina before my parents moved us up to Virginia, but in that year I learned something I didn’t know before that both fascinated and terrified me, something about the South and its treachery, and now that I was back in the capital city of my Palmetto State youth for one special night, I needed look it in the eye, to stare it down, to be made clean; and so I climbed the worn marble treads up toward the modest rotunda. A monument stood there, and behind it towered a lone flagpole. I gazed up, not sure what I would see. In South Carolina things weren’t often as they seemed. Strom Thurmond was dead before anyone knew about his black children. Refrigerator Perry was flat broke not long after his record season. The emancipator Denmark Vesey was shackled in Charleston. 

My gaze climbed the length of the flagpole, not knowing what colors I’d see flying atop it. I’d heard it was supposed to come down soon, maybe it was already gone. South Carolina had a clamp on its past stronger than a pair of Vise-Grips, and yet always, everywhere, the truth comes out. Mark Sanford’s mystery disappearance solved in a hotel room in Argentina. Refrigerator Perry, in the throes of alcoholism, pawning his Super Bowl ring. Even the patriot Swampfox has to watch while his slaves abandon him to join sides with King George. 

And there it was on top of the flagpole. Limp in the windless heat. The big red fuck you. The stars and bars. The Confederate battle flag. It looked weak, not at all menacing in its flatly hung state. I half-hoped the wind would pick up so I could see it stretched out, and maybe waggle my middle finger one last time at the Old South. Instead I just shook my head. There was an African-American police officer standing nearby. Was he guarding it? I walked up. “Sir, I’m a visitor to this city and, with all due respect, I’m interested in knowing how you feel about that flag up there?” He studied me. Then I watched his gaze rising up the length of the flagpole, and, returning to me, he wrinkled his nose, pursed his lips and said, “That flag don’t mean nothin’ to me.”   

The author, Ketch Secor, at center, with his band the Old Crow Medicine Show
The author, Ketch Secor, at center, with his band the Old Crow Medicine Show

It’s been 20 years since the battle flag of the Confederacy was removed from the state capitol at Columbia, South Carolina. It spent another 10 years flying a few feet away at a Confederate soldier’s memorial until the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston finally forced officials to remove it forever from the capitol complex. 

One summer night in 2020, listening to news on the radio and hearing the updates from down in Jackson, Mississippi, my children, petrified in front of a Disney movie, shouted, “Can you please be quieter, Dad?” I was cheering that loudly. 

I put “Moana” on pause and sat them down. I told them, “Kids, something really important has happened and Pop’s happy because the state of Mississippi finally decided to remove its Confederate battle flag.” At tuck-in, my son asked me, “Will they put up a new flag?” Hmm. I hadn’t thought of this yet. “Sure they will,” I said. “What will it look like?” 

Hmm. Well, that got me thinking, and later that night I sat down and wrote the best song I could think up to describe a new Mississippi flag of my wildest imaginings. I wanted my kids to see it, to feel it, to understand what it symbolized. I wanted to road trip with them down to Jackson so they could witness its being raised. I wanted them to grow up in a South that was reckoning with its racist past and vowing never to repeat it. They were born here in the southland, and I wanted them to be proud of their southland for atoning for its terrible sin. This spring, my band Old Crow Medicine Show will release our first studio album in quite a while, a record titled “Paint This Town,” which includes the song I wrote that night, called simply “New Mississippi Flag.” It’s a sparse recording, but it features the cane flute playing of Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the great Mississippi fife-master Otha Turner. 

Writing the song, it was fun to imagine what a new Southern flag could look like once those sinister stars and bars were removed. I imagined it vibrant with color, an ensign for all. I filled it with magnolias, stars shining over the delta, and I set it waving like the Mississippi River. I put in a stripe for Charlie Pride, a diamond for Elvis, Eudora Welty lines, Choctaw and Chickasaw imagery, a Blue Yodel, a Robert Johnson moan. In my heart I raised it up over the capitol in Jackson. But before I did I yanked that old threadbare halyard and pulled down the big red fuck you. I pulled it down in my heart. And in my heart I balled it up and threw it away forever.  

SHARE

Leave a Comment

Shopping Cart