“Mississippi Flag Defenders Dig In” — headline, Washington Post, Aug. 18, 2015
Though writing about an already over-written topic goes against my grain, I can’t resist weighing in with a personal story involving undue exuberance for the Old Confederacy.
The time, autumn of 1951: The Korean War – or as the Truman White House euphemistically called it, “police action” – was underway and as a member of the 31st Infantry (“Dixie”) Division, I was temporarily stationed at Fort Slocum, just outside New York City.
Oh, about the Dixie Division. It was primarily composed of troops from Alabama and Mississippi, our uniforms bearing pin-on Confederate flags on both shoulders, and instead of Reveille every dawn we woke up to the sound of “Dixie” blared over a campwide sound system.
It was nothing out of the ordinary for someone who grew up in the South. Just out of the University of Alabama, I was accustomed to hearing the Confederate anthem played during football games and watching, whenever Ole Miss came to play, its student body waving the Stars and Bars.
All that would change, of course, when coaches in the Southeastern Conference found that, much as these symbols of the Lost Cause were revered, they drove away five-star African-American players who could help win football games.
But back to the autumn of ’51, a prime time to be stationed near New York, with young Tony Bennett breaking in at the Paramount, Rocky Marciano coming into his own at Madison Square Garden, and best of all for a jazz lover, Dizzy Gillespie playing at Birdland.
So there I was this particular night at Birdland, with a crowd of fellow jazz lovers, waiting for the King of Bop to show up; which he did, one hour late, explaining his tardiness with a story about playing a benefit on Long Island co-sponsored by the NAACP, the Knights of Columbus, B’nai Brith and — (pause) the Ku Klux Klan — (another pause) — with the punchline, “So you see, we’re lucky to be here at all.”
That brought on a big, forgiving laugh, but the best was yet to come. About to introduce members of his combo, Dizzy made mention of once having played a session down South, in Jackson, Mississippi. This brought on a whoop of appreciation from a table — fortunately not near mine — which led Gillespie to say, “Oh, someone’s here from Mississippi? You’ve come to the right place. It so happens we have the last Confederate flag ever flown. Pee Wee, show it to ‘em.”
At which point, Birdland’s diminutive emcee, Pee Wee Marquette, appeared onstage, took a flourishing white handkerchief out of his breast pocket, and waved it at the crowd.
According to the Post, today’s defenders of the Stars and Bars say the reason they stand by it is because it’s part of their past. One hundred fifty years after Appomattox they need to be reminded that the “flag” Pee Wee waved is, too.
Sound bite to remember
“I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”
–Retired Confederate General George Pickett’s response (circa 1870) on being asked whether the battle of Gettysburg was lost because of Johnson’s failure to advance, Lee’s inertia, or Stuart’s negligence.