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Confederate flag: Racist symbol or emblem of ‘country’ lifestyle

“I’m not racist. I’m friends with all races and all genders, to me the [Confederate] flag stands for the redneck way of life, though there is much more and it’s nothing to do with hate or racism.” -- Ray Dumont

Ashley Falls — Off a well-traveled but empty stretch of Route 7 that runs through the low-lying farmland between the village of Sheffield and the town of Canaan, Connecticut, a dirt road cuts between cornfields and a cluster of homes whose residents are either related or are long-time friends.

Near the end of that road, outside the home of Ray Dumont, the stars and bars battle flag is raised but drooping, since it is a still and muggy July morning. The American flag usually flies in its place, but Dumont switched it out for a bit, to make a point.

Dumont says that to him, the Confederate flag represents 'a redneck way of life.'
Dumont says that to him, the Confederate flag represents ‘a redneck way of life.’

Dumont, 34, has a scrap metal, lawn and snow plowing business; he is also a firefighter. Slapping away the crafty mosquitoes in these low elevations of the Housatonic River Valley, Dumont points just beyond his home and says that he was born and raised in a trailer there. He now lives in what was his grandparents’ home, which now belongs to his mother. Dumont went to Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, and NASCAR fan that he is, headed for South Carolina after graduation to do some auto racing before money considerations pushed him back north.

Dumont recently started a Facebook page called Southern Berkshire Weather/Emergency Reports for those who, like himself, like to keep a firm handle on such things. Reporters like it for possible tipoffs about accidents, structural fires or other incidents. The useful page spread quickly, as such things do on Facebook, and in June the group had around 543 members.

And then there was a stir in the Weather/Emergency group that had nothing to do with fire or rain, but Dumont’s own personal profile picture, a Confederate flag. When the flag became a national issue, Dumont defiantly changed his personal profile picture to an image of the rebel flag, and continued to post variants of it on his personal page, along with other Confederate symbols. While Dumont intended the flag for his personal page only, the little red and blue square had the effect of a bomb, for some, when it kept popping up on the Weather/Emergency page every time Dumont would post to it.

It was business-as-usual for those who fly Confederate flags until Dylan Roof murdered nine African Americans last month at a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, citing his desire to start a “race war.” Images of Roof holding a Confederate flag before the shooting prompted calls for the flag’s widespread removal and exclusion from the American symbolic repertoire.

The controversy appeared to reach into every nook and cranny, every dirt road in America. And in these Berkshire hills, people began messaging Dumont, he said, asking to either be removed from the group or asking him to take his flags down, though most members, it appeared, did not mind. Comments and complaints posted to the group’s page were quickly removed by Dumont, who said the group page was to remain free of anything other than the group’s purpose.

“This is a group about weather and emergencies and we all need to stick to that,” Dumont wrote. “We all got along before this and we will get along during and after this and everyone needs to respect one another.”

One person who asked to be removed from the group was Laurie Norton Moffatt, executive director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. “I didn’t want the association of being aligned with a group that used that image,” she said later by phone.

But Dumont says that the flag is not a racist symbol, though he admits there are those who use it in that context, something that he says angers him since it blankets what he sees as an entire tribe who use the flag as an identifier for a lifestyle or culture, specifically “the country life,” one that involves things like trucks, stock car racing, hunting and guns, among other interests.

“I’m not racist,” he wrote in his one and only post on the subject. “I’m friends with all races and all genders, to me the flag stands for the redneck way of life, though there is much more and it’s nothing to do with hate or racism.”

Outside his house, Dumont explained that by his reckoning of Civil War history, the Confederate flag was a symbol of freedom from “big brother,” a k a, “the Union.”

“It’s about states rights,” he said, noting that he feels similarly about government interference now and doesn’t like that “my tax dollars go to pay for illegals.”

A small confederate flag on Dumont's truck is combined with American flags. Photo; Heather Bellow
A small confederate flag on Dumont’s truck is combined with American flags. Photo; Heather Bellow

Yet, he says, “I get offended every day, but I’m not going to go shoot people.”

“It’s the land I love. I don’t like the government but I support our troops one hundred percent.” On this note he says that one reason the Confederate flag should stay is for “history,” and to honor all the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Two mini American Flags fly from each side mirror of Dumont’s truck, which is parked in front of his house. He points to a small Confederate flag sticker on the rear windshield and says that it is not about hate. “White supremacists don’t like blacks or Mexicans. I don’t even think they like themselves,” he said. “They hurt and kill people. That doesn’t sit well with me. That’s the sad part.”

He said he couldn’t possibly be a firefighter or first responder and also carry racist views.

Dumont, who recently started a new, closed Facebook group called “Rebels of Berkshire County,” pointed out that Dylan Roof burned an American flag on video. “That’s hate in America in general. I’m a peaceful person.”

Dumont acknowledged that even his NASCAR favorite, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told a news outlet that the rebel cloth “belongs in the history books,” and “I think it’s offensive to an entire race.” NASCAR last month supported South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to take the flag down from the grounds of the state capitol. Both NASCAR and The International Speedway Corp. (ISC) are racing away from the appearance of any association with the flag. And both, as it turns out, are struggling over the balance between diversity that will widen their appeal, and their largely white Southern fan base.

Dumont said that his father purchased his stars and bars flag at a race. For that reason it is sentimental to him as well, and he usually keeps it on a wall inside so as to preserve it. It isn’t the official stars and bars used during the Civil War, Dumont added; this one was overlaid with a central seal that reads, “The South Will Rise Again.”

Laurie Norton Moffatt said she was “incredulous” when she saw the flag pop up as Dumont’s profile picture. “It shows how many different worlds coexist but don’t intersect right in our own community.”

Dumont taking his Confederate flag down.
Dumont taking down his Confederate flag.

“Holding these conversations” about the flag “is a good thing,” she added, “because it helps us understand each other better…it continues the process of education and dialogue.”

But as someone who works in the field of imagery and understands “the power of an image to change laws, thought, action and deeds,” Moffatt said that symbols can be “co-opted and ruined by a malevolent way of thinking.” She used the swastika, a symbol of power and good luck in Hinduism, as an example. Given its modern association with the Nazis, “people wouldn’t think to use it anymore,” she said. “Something that is acceptable at one time has to go away because it still represents an aspect of inhumanity that is too evil and inconsiderate.”

“For those who experience racism and are oppressed by racist views, the [Confederate flag] is a symbol of that way of thinking.”

A recent YouGov poll shows Americans split about whether the Confederate flag represents Southern pride or racism. According to that poll, more people in the Northeast see the flag as a “racist symbol” than as one of Southern pride.

The sun burned the remaining mists off the cornfields, and appeared to stoke mosquito hunger as Dumont took his beloved stars and bars off the pole and spread it open for a photo. But he wouldn’t put it back up today; he’d replace it again with his American flag.

“There’s bad weather coming,” he said.

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