How Do You Feel About The General Lee's Confederate Flag?
Sometimes events in the real world overshadow our little automotive corner of the universe. If you look over some previous posts and comments, you’ll see that I’ve recently been writing about television cars and already planning to cover the “General Lee” 1969 Dodge Charger from the Dukes of Hazzard TV series, so please do not accuse us of trying to exploit a controversy in pursuit of clicks. As it happens, I interviewed the owner of the authentic General Lee illustrating this post just last week.
Due to the horrific church shooting in Charleston, though, the Confederate battle flag, which was painted on the roof of the Chargers used in that television show, has become a national controversy, in no small part because of its display on the ground of the state capital in South Carolina. Since it would be impossible for me to discuss the General Lee in the current atmosphere without addressing the flag issue, I’m going to depart from my usual history and provenance based approach.
Normally I’d go into the history of the car, how the producers decided on that model, the number of vehicles that were used in filming, modifications made, how many survived, where they are, interesting stories about the specific car and its owner, etc. Indeed, the General Lee has an interesting story, what with the hundreds of Chargers consumed in the show’s production and the wild stunt drives that destroyed them. The owner of this particular car is a huge MOPAR fan and he also has some great stories. He’s a nice guy, a serious and knowledgeable car enthusiast, so he’d make a nice angle to a post on the General Lee.
Though over 300 different Chargers were used in shooting the show, less than two dozen survived the jumps and other stunts. This particular car had a slightly easier life in that it was the “hero car” used for scenes with the actors starring in the series.
However, I have absolutely no intention of putting the owner in the crosshairs of social justice warriors on Twitter, so that’s all we’re going to say about this particular General Lee. Instead we’re going to discuss the flag on the General Lee’s roof.
Regarding the flag itself, I’m not particularly fond of displaying the flags of those who took up arms against the United States of America. I think public displays, in this country, of the rising sun of imperial Japan, or the swastika emblazoned banner of Germany’s National Socialists, are inappropriate, but then we’ve fought a couple of wars against Great Britain and nobody objects to the Union Jack. The history of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is, as they say, complicated.
That was the flag that Robert E. Lee, an opponent of slavery and secession, and a reluctant commander, fought under. It has been argued that allowing the post Civil War South to embrace the battle flag as a symbol of honorable warriors serving their country was an important factor in the needed postwar reconciliation. It’s also been argued that it was not embraced as a symbol of racism until it was used as a banner of opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. It was, however, used as a symbol of racial segregation.
It should be noted that the flag first flew over the South Carolina capitol only as late as 1961 (when Democrat Fritz Hollings, who later served in the U.S. Senate for four decades, was governor). Using my best Google-fu, while I’ve been able to find images of the Ku Klux Klan marching with the Confederate battle flag along with the Stars & Stripes in the 1960s and later, earlier photos only show the KKK wrapping themselves, figuratively, in the American flag. The meaning of the battle flag has changed over time.
Coincidentally, I was in Charleston last year for a Toyota ride & drive event. It turns out that while checking out the new Highlander, I drove past the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where the killings took place. It’s on Calhoun Ave., on the block next to the green space where stands a statue to John Calhoun on a pedestal that’s at least 50 feet tall. Driving past that statue I thought that it must be weird for a black man or woman to walk or drive by it. I can respect Robert E. Lee, but John Calhoun held some very objectionable ideas his entire life.
When black Americans see the Confederate battle flag, it’s easy to understand how they can see it today as a symbol of racism, even if it didn’t necessarily mean that in the distant past. Even if it doesn’t mean that to many of those who continue to revere it today. It was, however, a part of history and while perhaps, to avoid causing pain, it should not be part of official state displays, one shouldn’t erase history. I know all about the positive use of the swastika in cultures around the world, but even when seen in those contexts, it can still provoke a visceral response because of what the Nazis did with it. I know it’s part of Native American and Asian Indian heritage, but don’t be naive when people cringe if you use it on a t-shirt.
Walmart has announced they’ll be removing Confederate battle flag themed merchandise from their inventories. Apparently eBay has joined them. It will be interesting to see what happens to General Lee models and toys. At the time of this writing, there are hundreds of diecast and plastic General Lees for sale on eBay. In 2013, Warner Bros., the studio that produced Dukes of Hazzard, denied a report that they were going to make licensees remove the flag from General Lee replicas. Right now, at the Toys R Us, site you can still buy 1:25 and 1:16 plastic scale models of the General Lee and it appears that they both come complete with the “stars and bars” on the roof, though it looks like MPC (actually Round 2, which owns the ERTL, AMT and MPC brands) has sold both models in packaging that doesn’t show the flag on the front of the box.
Late on Tuesday, Vulture.com reported that the consumer licensing division of Warner Bros. decided to stop licensing any Dukes of Hazzard merchandise featuring the Confederate battle flag. The company said in an email, “Warner Bros. Consumer Products has one licensee producing die-cast replicas and vehicle model kits featuring the General Lee with the confederate flag on its roof — as it was seen in the TV series. We have elected to cease the licensing of these product categories.” That one licensee is Round 2. Though Vulture did not publish the full text of the email, they believe that it means Warner will no longer license any toy cars or model kits of the General Lee, with or without the flag on the roof.
If you own a model of the General Lee, Warner Brothers effectively just made it more collectible. Well, that is, if you can find a place to sell it.
How do you feel when you see the General Lee? Would you invite one to a car show you were organizing? Would you ban one from a car show your were organizing? Would you keep one in your collection of plastic and diecast model TV and movie cars?
Photos of the General Lee by the author. You can see the full gallery here.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
Koshchei on Jul 01, 2015
It's a historical anachronism (the car with flag) and therefore not really subject to today's interpretation. That said, a round-headed derp from the deep south doesn't get a free pass when he drives his lifted pickup truck around with a Confederate flag in some misplaced show of allegiance to a faction who believed that it was ok to to buy and sell other human beings like livestock.
CRConrad on Jul 03, 2015
@Hummer, @TW5, @28-Cars-Later, here's one for you guys: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/ . Go read, and let's never hear that "It wasn't about slavery!" drivel again. Thank you.
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