Why would anyone step into this? It’s a sincere question. The Confederate flag was at the center of national horror again all summer. Now someone wants to design a new one? Why even touch that?
That flag. Three weeks after a white supremacist gunman murdered nine people in a church in Charleston on June 17, the state of South Carolina removed it from the statehouse grounds. I call it the rebel flag. That’s a Yankee term, rejected by most Southerners. “Stars and bars” is wrong. So is “Confederate flag,” at least technically. But we all know what it looks like.
Since the massacre in Charleston, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that “Confederate flag” rallies have been popping up mainly in the South at a rate of about three a day, attracting almost 20,000 people by mid-October. Whatever you call it, the flag is the bloody eye staring out of this latest paroxysm of race hatred.
So in the midst of this national grief and horror, a Dallas design and brand-marketing firm, 70kft, accepts a challenge from a public radio show to design a new flag for the South. To which I honestly would say, “What, are you nuts?” In fact, that is what I said.
Gus and Audrey Granger are co-principals in 70kft, a design and public relations firm that occupies an entire floor of a downtown office tower. The company is young because it’s only 12 years old and because the people who work there are young. The name, 70kft, stands for the 70,000-foot view, which they say is the perspective from which they like to strategize and design.
They call themselves “brand gladiators.” Their client list includes Verizon, HP, Lennox Commercial, GM Pharmaceuticals and others of that size and ilk. In 2015, Inc.com named them one of the nation’s 5,000 fastest growing companies. They have been included in the SMU Cox School of Business’ top 100 Dallas firms. They’re not desperate for attention.
The radio show, called Studio 360, a creation of Public Radio International and WNYC radio, sponsors these redesign competitions as a kind of schtick: redesign the Monopoly board game, redesign teachers, redesign Canada. Part of the challenge, I assume, is the assumption that it’s impossible to redesign Canada. Or Monopoly. So it’s fun to try.
But redesign the symbol of the South? That’s like saying, “Redesign white people.” Yeah, and then change your name and move to Canada at midnight. Why would you even try that?
I asked Gus Granger. Why the rebel flag, as I call it? I asked him what the upside was. Behind a busy desk in a corner office overlooking downtown Dallas, he paused for so long before answering that I thought he might be on the verge of asking me to leave.
“I have been intrigued by it,” he said finally, “because I grew up in the North (Apple Valley, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities).” He is 41 years old.
“But having family members who were civil rights leaders, a great ancestor who was in a colored regiment in the Civil War and ultimately my entire family’s heritage being in the South as slaves, in some ways I’m like, my whole existence is because of the South.
“By the fact that, yes, we went north, but we have come back, I can really very authentically be embracing some identity here, just from heritage alone.”
So what did he think of the South when he was growing up in Apple Valley?
“My image of the South was through the lens of the black and white videos I would see from the civil rights era, the stories from my parents, my grandparents talking about segregation, facing Jim Crow or just stuff in the media. Golden Girls. Dukes of Hazzard.”
A little under his breath, he muttered, “My younger brother and I loved Dukes of Hazzard.”
When he was a young fine art student in painting he did a self-portrait — himself, looking out from behind bars at a landscape of burning crosses.
So now I think this is beginning to add up. This new flag for the South is going to be like that — jail bars and burning crosses, a middle finger and a curse. Then the midnight move to Toronto. But I am way wrong.
“The first art school I went to,” he said, “was in Savannah, Georgia (Savannah College of Art and Design). That was my first time spending any time in the South. That was me suddenly being immersed in this place that had just been this caricature to me.
“It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was my first time being away from home. I was meeting just really great friends. Most of them were from the South, but it just didn’t matter.”
Then he saw his first rebel flag.
“We went into an Army surplus store, and the flag was on the wall, and right alongside it was a Ku Klux Klan hood with the sheets. It was right up there on the wall in the back with guns and gas masks.
“We all walked in. I saw it. I pointed it out to my friends. And we all walked out. I was the only black kid in the program. All my friends were white. They instantly understood. Like, yeah, we don’t need to spend time here. That was my first impression. But beyond that, race never really came up.”
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The rebel flag is not neutral or benign. It carries a punch. The rebel flag talks. It can speak powerfully under certain circumstances.
Mark Potok, who worked here for a while at the Dallas Times Herald, is a national expert on the world of extremism, mainly in his capacity as editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly journal, Intelligence Report. I called to ask him what he thinks the flag says when it speaks to people. What is its message? First he gave me a primer on the name.
“It’s the Confederate battle flag. That’s what it’s come to be known as universally. Don’t call it the stars and bars. That’s a mistake. It was actually only used by one part of the Confederate army, the Army of Northern Virginia. The mistake that a lot of people make is describing it as the flag of the Confederacy, which is not true.”
OK. But what does it mean?
“I think the reality is the Confederate battle flag stands for different things for different groups of people,” he said. “I think for very large numbers of white Southerners, the flag is taken to represent all that was supposedly good and noble about the antebellum South.”
Potok said that view of the flag flies in the face of reality: “It’s perfectly obvious to me that the flag really has come to represent the very worst of Southern slavery and racism.”
The other view, the soft and fuzzy romantic one, he said, is an expression of a deeper and more fundamental lie about history: “What this whole debate really goes to at the end of the day is what the Civil War was really about. Neo-Confederates and their sympathizers, as well as huge numbers of ignorant white Southerners, believe that the war had nothing to do with slavery. And that is an absolute falsehood.”
He offered historical evidence — Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” at the Athenaeum in Savannah weeks before the war started, declaring white supremacy and defense of slavery as the cornerstones upon which the Confederacy rested; the “secessioners,” emissaries sent out by the Confederacy to address legislatures of Southern states that had not yet defected from the union, uniformly arguing that defense of slavery was the great goal of secession and the Confederacy; and more.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, he said, the rebel flag was adopted by the KKK and its successor groups like the League of the South. It was the proud symbol of the segregationist Dixiecrats. To this day, Potok says, the flag continues to stand for those original cornerstones of the Confederacy — white supremacy and black slavery as expressed later in Jim Crow segregation and racial hatred.
So, back to that design studio in Dallas and my original question: Why would anybody step into this?
“It was not about redesigning a Confederate flag or re-envisioning the Confederacy,” Granger said. “In the wake of that shooting [in Charleston] and people trying to figure out what it means to be Southern and to represent the South, what would something be that would represent the modern South? And so I was enthusiastic to take up that challenge, because I do love this place. I love the people here.
“Every place has a difficult history. But to take the opportunity to try to create something positive that could potentially unify a variety of viewpoints, even those that I disagree with, was something which was really exciting to me, and that’s why we stepped into it — a very long answer to your short question.”
The design process itself was an open, free-ranging, skunk-works collaboration with an even balance of Yankees and Southerners on the team. Senior designer Josh Carroll, for example, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was worried about coming up with something that would have credibility with Southerners.
Bailey Parkerson, who is from Birmingham, Alabama, wanted to make sure the design would express the South of today, not the South in which his parents grew up. Parkerson gravitated toward a side of the team that was thinking in terms of quilts as symbols of home, not war, and of quilting itself as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.
Another designer, Michael Feavel, was thinking about stereotypes inflicted on Southerners by others who see them as slow or stupid. He wondered if there might not be something good to say about rebels. In other words, there was still some fist in his hand.
I would have assumed the designers would feel so much pressure to come up with something friendly, non-controversial and sweet that they would all wind up stampeding over to the quilting side of the room and away from that rebel fist guy. But then again, they are a young crowd, and young people get bored with sweetness, don’t they?
The ultimate design wound up a marriage of the quilting concept with the more assertive element, the rebel thing or something like it. Blue bars plunge from the upper left of the new flag to the bottom, weaving through red bars that descend the other way, from the upper right to bottom, together forming a pattern of Vs pointing down or south, or, depending on how you focus, shooting up from the south kind of like those Hollywood lights at movie premieres.
But unmistakably the blue and red bars clash. They’re not lined up like soldiers on parade. The lines run right into each other. They collide. I wondered why.
The rebel theme, Granger said, was something that his young team of designers considered to be a positive element of Southern culture — just not that bad kind of rebel. In fact, once the word was i
solated from connotations of slavery and racism, they felt that “rebel” could express an independence of character, even a defiant independence in which the modern South could take justifiable pride.
“While we were working through it,” he said, “that was potentially going to be a direction for the symbol itself. There was a point where the symbol was just going to be the word, ‘Rebel,’ on a blue background, written in handwriting, and we were specifically going to make it Martin Luther King’s handwriting.”
Wait. MLK? Rebel? I needed help with that.
Granger said, “There are all these folks who are celebrated as big cultural icons but not necessarily tied to the idea of being Southerners. When we talk about Jesse Owens or Martin Luther King or Janis Joplin or Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, those are all Southerners.
“Look at the heroism. Look at the giant world influence that has come from people who are from this area. Each one of them in some way was really challenging convention in order to have the impact that they did, and so that just fell right into this word, rebel.”
I had to run that one by Potok.
“I have mixed feelings,” he said, “probably like you. I think that, sure, Martin Luther King was a rebel, and he is an artifact of the Deep South. On the other hand, I think that the flag in particular has been taken to represent in some quarters a kind of tough-boy rebelliousness aimed at any kind of authority.”
He said he associates the rebelliousness symbolized by the battle flag with the group recently indicted under Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act for driving by a birthday party where many attendees were black in a raucous cavalcade of pickup trucks, brandishing flags and guns.
“It’s a little problematic for me,” Potok said, “because I also think that the South has a uniquely violent history and had a uniquely violent culture in the bad old days.”
Granger doesn’t deny any of that. But he insists that the South can’t be held prisoner in its own past forever and that, once people outside the South are able to view it with fresh eyes, some things once considered character flaws may begin to look more like virtues.
“Outside of the context of the South, the term rebel is a positive thing,” Granger said, “seen more as a constructive challenging of convention. There’s a kind of a chip on your shoulder to stand up for what’s right.”
Speaking of the ancient past, Potok and I worked together at the Times Herald 100 years ago. We share the experience of being crabby Yankee liberals who have lived most of our lives in the South, me in Dallas and him in Montgomery, Alabama. When we were done talking business, I shared with him an experience I had once in Montgomery while staying there, working on a book.
I was walking around somewhere in downtown Montgomery on Washington Street, east of the capitol walking westbound, looking lost I guess, and a young white guy in a suit and tie, kind of lawyer looking, approached me walking in the other direction. He asked me if I needed help. I forget where I was going, but I did need help. He changed direction and walked with me to help me find whatever it was.
As we walked west on Washington, he pointed out the “White House of the Confederacy,” where Jefferson Davis lived. Quite proud of it. I was polite. I silently remembered a colleague at the Times Herald, Molly Ivins, who told me how shocked she was the first time she traveled North and found we had named major thoroughfares for war criminals — namely, Union General William T. Sherman.
We turned right on South Bainbridge Street and walked past the capitol. He told me there was a star in the marble floor inside where Davis took the oath of office as the only president of the Confederacy. I thought to myself, “Dandy.”
Then we turned left on Dexter Avenue. With the same pride of ownership, he pointed out to me Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church. He told me Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor in the 1950s — he named the years as I recall — and explained how King had organized the Montgomery bus boycott from his basement office in the church.
I told Potok that when I was driving out of Montgomery, I passed a big billboard that said, “MONTGOMERY: Birthplace of the Confederacy. Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”
He said living in the South all these years made him believe that my experience — running into a guy who would reverse his path and walk me to my destination — was very Southern. It probably expressed a kind of general friendliness and civility that may become less common the farther North one goes.
He said the pride my guide took in showing me all of the history, including both sides of the racial equation, was also very typical of Montgomery.
“Montgomery has come more and more, especially in the last 15 years or so, to accept its strange dual historical role as the cradle both of the Confederacy and of the civil rights movement.” It’s all part of the deal, he said.
“I’ll tell you one funny thing. They are going to change this very shortly, but there is a historical plaque downtown, a big brass or bronze plaque, free-standing.
“On one side of it, it says, and I paraphrase, ‘This is where Rosa Parks was put down from the bus and arrested.’ On the other side of the same sign, it says, ‘Across the street, the Davis Theater is where Hank Williams first played in public.’”
After I hung up, I tried to think: Let’s say I was on a quiz show, and the question was, “What did Hank Williams and Rosa Parks have in common?” Would I have come up with, “They’re both Southerners?” I think I might still be standing there with a furrowed brow and my finger on my lip.
I had a last question for Granger. If this new flag or symbol that he and his crew have devised is not intended as a replacement for the battle flag, then why is any new flag needed at all? Does the Corn Belt need a flag? The Rocky Mountain West? Why does the South get a flag?
He basically said c’mon. We all know the answer to that. The South is a real thing. It is a place, a phenomenon, a culture. Not that those other regions aren’t real. But in literature and history, film and song, fact and romance, the South is somehow more a distinctive locale than those other regions. It is a place apart.
“It is more distinct than what we think of when we think of the Midwest or the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “There is a specific set of images, lifestyle, way of talk that we assign to this region.
“From my standpoint as a designer and running a branding agency, that is a brand without a strategy.”
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The strategy the South needs, he said, is to celebrate all that is good, charming and strong about the South but find a way to place itself in a new conversation.
The old conversation, he said, the one sparked by the battle flag, will always be one in which “everybody is loaded for bear” and everyone thinks he must, “defend the honor of my grandfather, because you’re calling him a monster.”
Instead, he said, “Let’s bring grace into this conversation.”
If nothing else, that would be one hell of a trick.