Up until June of this year, Greg Reese of Campton, Kentucky, proudly featured a Confederate flag magnet on the trunk of his car.
But after a series of realizations, including the police killing of George Floyd, Reese removed the magnet and created a new decal — one that read “Rednecks for Black Lives.” The bumper sticker he designed features a new inclusive, and colorful, Southern pride flag.
Although he says it took him a while to admit the problem, he now feels “disgust” at ever flying the Confederate flag.
“Some of us still are in the dark or want to stay in the dark about [the Confederate flag],” he says. “And it was an icon growing up as a child. You saw it everywhere.”
He started a Facebook group to engage people to join the movement. He also connected with Southern Crossroads, a group of self-described hillbilly rednecks from Kentucky, in order to educate himself and others.
“You can sit back and say, you know, ‘Hey, this ain't my fight.’ And a lot of us did for a long time,” he says. “But I want to be one of those out there pulling people into it because it is their fight. It always has been our fight. South, North, white, Black, Brown, Latinos — everyone needs to get in this.”
While the term "rednecks" originated in the mid-1800s as a derogatory description of poor southern farmers with sunburnt necks, it was reclaimed by southerners by 1900. Records show that many called themselves "proud rednecks" and wore red scarves to political rallies.
The tradition was continued when a major labor uprising occurred in 1921, she writes. Multiracial coal miners in Appalachia wore red bandanas to indicate they were in favor of unionizing.
The full force of the government was brought down on these miners in what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. Many of them died fighting for a union that never came to fruition.
“I want us to reclaim the word redneck,” she says. “And our history and that history is made up of people rising up together. That gives us hope — and we need a lot of hope right now.”
Howard, who grew up in a poor, working-class mining family in rural Kentucky, says she was often angry at living a life where “poor people are sacrificed for a few to be rich.” She says society taught poor white people to divert blame onto people of color for their struggles instead of the real culprits — money-hungry billionaires, politicians and big businesses.
But that narrative, for her, changed when she learned about the original rednecks’ struggle for justice. As she writes, she’s now “showing up in defense of Black lives” and invites other rednecks to do the same.
On the Confederate flag and the Black Lives Matter movement
Greg Reese: “First of all, let me say that like most people in Appalachia, many, many people in the South, I was never against Black Lives Matter. The Confederate flag to us, it held a different meaning. We were told differently. We grew up that way. We didn't know any better until we got older and our eyes opened up a little and we started seeing things. And it took me a while to take it off. And it took me a while to admit the problem. But I was well aware that it wasn't a good thing by the time I was in my 20s.
“... A lot of people down here never did see [the Confederate flag] as a racist thing, even though it's blaringly racist. We realize that now, a lot of us. Some of us still are in the dark or want to stay in the dark about it. And it was an icon growing up as a child. You saw it everywhere. You knew it stood for rebellion. It stood for you standing up for your rights because we were taught that way. It’s so whitewashed. You feel disgust about ever having flown it. There probably were people that saw that that feared me when they saw it.
“We need to educate people and teach the people that I know and the people that they know that will join my group, Rednecks for Black Lives on Facebook. I'm trying to teach them all these little things that honestly, yeah, we probably should have known a lot of this stuff. There's a lot of people saying, like all lives matter and all this stuff and they don't understand what they're saying. They don't understand that the issue is not really even black and white. The issue is the haves and the have nots. The people at the top keeping us down. People of color are being treated far worse than us and that's another dividing tactic.”
On why he decided to get rid of the Confederate flag car decal and start educating himself
Reese: “The catalyst was the George Floyd killing. And then this wonderful child on the news talking about her father's death and saying, ‘Daddy changed the world.’ ... And when I heard that, I cried. My own daughter was sitting there and she teared up. We realized then, you know, we need to be a part of this. We need to help change this world for this child, for her future, for everyone's future.
“I saw this Rednecks for Black Lives as being a wonderful way to get people around here to support the movement in a way that they would feel more comfortable with. If they put Black Lives Matter on their car, a lot of people might think the wrong thing for their area — a lot of people are ignorant about what it really means and think it's a negative thing and against whites. But plenty of people around here realize that it's nothing to do with whites. It's about the lives that are being taken by police, people of color being mistreated through, you know, the last 150 years.”
On feedback on the new decals
Reese: “Well, with this slogan and when I started running with it, making the decals for people to put on their cars, a lot of people loved it. But I'd like to say we here in Appalachia, especially the ones that want to be known that they're not racist, that they want to stand with Black Lives Matter, we want you to know that we're actually a majority from what we can tell this new Southern Pride flag. This is the attitude of change.
“You have the Confederate bars in the background with a heart handshake of a person of color and a white person, and that represents the South awakening and the new thought process and the new Southern pride that I hope sweeps across, you know, the whole South and even the whole nation. You don't have to be from the South to get on board with Rednecks for Black Lives at all. I would love anybody and everybody to get behind Black Lives Matter with us.”
On Beth Howard’s identity growing up in a white working-working class rural community
Howard: “I grew up in a small rural majority white community. My dad was a surface miner, a strip miner. And we had a lot of joy and we had a lot of suffering, too. And that suffering came from experiencing the effects of living in a country where poor people are sacrificed for a few to be rich. I say that because, you know, I was really angry and I had every right to be.”
On the attempt to divide poor white people from minorities in order to weaken their potential strength if they worked together
Howard: “That's the purpose of our organization, Southern Crossroads. We are suffering poor white people and it's been going on for a long time. And we're told to blame Black people and people of color for that suffering. And what that does — and what it has always done — is divert us away from the real villains who are billionaires, crooked politicians, big businesses who make money while we blame each other.
“And so we really want to interrupt these false narratives, but we know we can make a different choice. And many of us have. And that path is one where white people can join with Black people and people of color to work together to win dignity and respect for everyone in the South. There were so many rural protests and prayer vigils and acts of solidarity in defense of Black lives over the past few months.
“We get a lot of blame for racism in the country. We get a lot of blame for, you know, the rise of Trump or Mitch McConnell. And I really want to point out that rich white people are the ones who are responsible for Trump and Mitch McConnell. But what I think is so important about organizing poor white people and poor white people in the South is that the South has been overlooked for so long that the right has just laid claim to it. And often the white left has written us off. And in order to win that, you know, kind of justice that we need in order to show up in defense of Black lives and to create health care and jobs for people and access to safe housing, we have to win over more white people. And to me, when we're working together with Black people and people of color, that means we get health care. That means we are safe from the police. We have safer communities. We have housing. We have access to food and shelter and things we need.”
This article was originally published on July 27, 2020.
This segment aired on July 27, 2020.