HEFLIN, Ala. – The old Confederate symbols were falling fast now – the statues, the names of streets, the Rebel flags flying over the Talladega Superspeedway – and in the town of Heflin, a sense of unease was spreading in places people usually felt secure.
At Calvary Baptist Church, the minister was preaching from the Book of Revelation. At the local dirt track, fans were trying not to think about it. At the Dixie General Store, a kind of panic buying was underway.
“I need a Rebel flag – a big one,” a customer was saying.
“You going to put it on the back of your truck?” said Bob Castello, the store owner.
“Yeah, the lady on the phone said you had one 12-by-18?” the man said, meaning feet, not inches. “You got anything bigger?”
“Well, 12-by-18 is huge,” Castello said, pointing to the enormous flag on the wall. “This one will fly better,” he said, showing him another one. “The lighter ones fly better.”
This is how the great American reckoning was unfolding in recent days in a place as white, evangelical and Confederate flag-flying as anywhere in the country. A hundred miles to the south in Montgomery, the newest monument to Southern history was a memorial to more than 4,400 black victims of lynchings that took place in the decades following the Civil War. Seventy-five miles to the west, the mayor of Birmingham had ordered a prominent Confederate monument removed, defying a state law meant to protect them. Thirty miles away in Talladega, one of the most storied races in sports was about to be run for the first time in its 50-year history without Confederate imagery.
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans,” the NASCAR statement announcing the ban had read.
“That Talladega crap” is what some people were calling it in Heflin, population 3,400, where President Donald Trump received 82 percent of the vote in 2016.
Castello, who figured he was “everything these liberals hate,” had started checking in with police about possible threats to his store, which appeared along a rural two-lane road as clusters of flapping Confederate flags, Christian flags, American flags and Trump flags bright against the Appalachian foothills. Inside was a shrine to all the Southern mythology being swept away.
“Whatcha got?” the clerk was saying now as she rang up a customer buying a Rebel flag blanket, a Rebel flag shot glass and two etchings of the Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson.
“Will this be all?” she said to a man buying a Rebel flag steering wheel cover, a Rebel flag hat, a Rebel flag hood cover and a Trump 2020 license plate, and all day long, customers slapped open the front door with a sense of urgency Castello had never quite seen.
Battle flag holsters, belt buckles, belts, boots, T-shirts, wallets, lighters, key chains, lanyards, lapel pins, toothpick holders, a homemade Rebel flag made from empty tobacco tins – it was all flying out the door so fast that Castello called in two clerks for reinforcement.
“Seems like it’s just boiled over here the last few days,” he said.
“Especially with that NASCAR nonsense,” a customer said.
“Yeah, that just pushed everyone over the edge,” said Castello, elaborating that the whole cultural tide was “denigrating everything that I am – white, male, Christian, gun-toting.”
“I need a Reb,” said a man in jeans and boots coming through the door.
“You got flags?” said Casey Britt, who began wandering the aisles, looking over the stickers that read “My Heroes are Confederate Soldiers” and “Dixie: Still One Nation Under God,” glancing at the secessionist flags, then stopping at the “Gone With the Wind” section. She picked out a photo of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.
“I can’t believe they’re taking ‘Gone with the Wind’ off the air,” she said, referring to a decision by HBO Max to temporarily suspend streaming of the film until it could be brought back with a discussion of its racist characterizations. “I mean, she’s an icon. It’s all so stupid. I feel like, let’s just stick a pin in everyone and erase history, because that’s how it feels.”
People kept coming and the phone kept ringing.
“Yes, 9 to 7. Yes, got plenty of flags,” Castello was saying.
He hung up and helped another customer, who told Castello about a Confederate flag parade he was organizing near the Talladega Superspeedway for the day of the race.
“I’m looking for something unique,” the man said.
“We have ‘If this flag offends you, you made my day,’ ” Castello offered. “You gonna put it on the back of your truck?”
“We got a ‘These colors don’t run,’ ” Castello said.
“If you want to come, we’re meeting at Stuckey’s in Eastaboga,” the man said, and soon, another customer came through the door. Castello recognized him. He worked at the New Hollis Speedway, an old red-dirt track tucked into the piney woods three miles down the road.
“Flagpole,” the man said.
“You gonna fly the Rebel?” the clerk asked him.
A few hours later, the sun was setting on a clear-sky day as cars began circling the track at New Hollis Speedway, packing the dirt – a growling parade of fat tires, dented doors and mismatched hoods including two painted with the Rebel flag, one with the American flag, and the rest with flames, names of girlfriends, lucky numbers and local sponsors such as D&J Used Tires. On a pole in the pit at the center of the track was the Rebel flag, and above it, an American flag, both limp in the windless evening.
“Let’s go guys, let’s go!” the track announcer called out. “If you want hot laps you better get on the track now. Bombers to the grid. Bombers to the grid.”
Cars and trucks were pulling in stocked with coolers and lawn chairs and vinegar potato chips. People were sitting on rusted bleachers or leaning on the wire fence in T-shirts bearing names of logging companies and farm suppliers and auto stores. Kids were playing in the dirt.
“Hey Michael! Is it going to be Jason’s night tonight?” a woman yelled.
“We’ll see,” said Michael, who didn’t give his last name and was relaxing in a folding chair, not focusing on anything as weighty as a flag flying or not flying at New Hollis or Talladega or anywhere else.
“This is where you go to get away from your problems,” he said as the first race got underway and dirt began flying.
A few chairs down along the wire fence sat a 54-year-old man named Lonnie Miles in jeans and boots the color of the dirt, enjoying the place his father had taken him since he was 8 years old.
“Feels good being here,” he said. “You ain’t got nobody going ‘nya, nya, nya’ picking on you.”
He called the flag ban “nonsense,” and more importantly, an affront to his own sense of himself as a decent person with what he considered to be genuine relationships with black neighbors.
“I got plenty of African American friends – I’ve known em since I was 14,” said Miles, adding that he learned to say ‘African American’ out of respect. “They know if they need anything, all they have to do is ask me. I have supper with them, and they have supper with me too. Only thing I don’t like is blacks and whites mixing, but I keep that to myself.”
Farther down the fence, a man in a camouflage T-shirt took a drag on his cigarette and explained the absence of black race fans as a sheer matter of choice.
“I got a black buddy used to come up here and race and he says the reason he don’t come anymore is because he don’t want to get the fever,” he said, referring to drinking alcohol. “He’s a preacher.”
He lit another cigarette and watched the Bombers buzzing around the track. He lit another and watched the six-cylinders go, and now the sky was dark, and moths were clouding the lights, and as the race finished a young man yelled out, “That’s how you do it, boy! Yeah! F— yeah!”
He was Jessie Ginn, 25, who grew up in the area, worked nearby at an organic farm and said of all that was going on: “I can guarantee you it’s not about the flag. If anybody’s fighting against it, it’s because the experience people have had with that visual. It’s how it feels. It’s because of pride,” he said, thumping his chest. He turned to an older man standing next to him. “Did I get that right, sir?”
“You got it right,” the man said.
Ginn continued: “For me, my high school was 50-50 black-white. I got more black friends than white friends. We were taught Martin Luther King. I say if it’s someone’s sign of hate, then take it away. Who gives a s— if there’s a flag. Everybody’d still be here if there weren’t no flag. But what do I know? I’m just a certain person, in a certain time, in a little bitty spot in this world we’re in,” he said, returning his attention to the track, where the fastest cars of the night were starting their last races.
“Talladega don’t compare to this,” said Kendall Bell, sitting on the bleachers, leaning in to watch. “This is doorknob to doorknob, redneck to redneck.”
“Ain’t as much politics in it for sure,” said the man sitting behind him.
“That’s because there’s not as much money in it,” said Bell, who had a gray beard and a trucker hat and said he’d thought about tattooing the Rebel flag on his back and walking through the gates of Talladega. “NASCAR was invented here. It was created by people here. The racers. The bootleggers. It wasn’t the political garbage it is now. Black, white, who cares?”
“It’s their right to pull it down but it’s not my right to keep it up?” said the man behind him, launching into a tirade about majority-black cities and black crime until Bell turned around and told him he was being offensive.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Bell said to the man. “My daughter married a black guy. Sure did, and it took me a long time to accept that. My daddy raised me different. And it took me a long time. But when he started taking care of my daughter? And taking care of those kids? And putting them in nice clothes? What am I supposed to say? My daughter’s happy. It took me a long time now, I promise you that. Me and him had some problems till we worked it out. Now I love him to death. He says to me, ‘That’s the South.’ But it took me a long time.”
“I’d never accept it,” said the man behind him. “I would never.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Bell. “I had a guy tell me one time, he said, ‘If that was my daughter, I’d disown her.’ And I thought about that. And you know what I decided?”
The man behind him was listening.
“I said if you do that, well, then you never loved her. You. Never. Loved her. I was raised different but am I going to quit loving my daughter? No, I am not. Who can quit loving your own daughter?”
The man behind him leaned back and continued his tirade until Bell interrupted again.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Until you put those shoes on? You can’t say one word. You just moved here two years ago anyway. You don’t know nothing about here.”
A man sitting to Bell’s left had been listening in on the conversation.
“The problem is everybody’s telling everybody they’re wrong,” said Jim Morris, a retiree whose two sons were out on the track. “No matter what we say, we’ll be wrong.”
He started to elaborate that taking down the Rebel flag was not going to solve race relations, that shaming people was not going to solve anything either, that he had voted for Obama twice and still felt scorned as a white man of a certain generation, and finally he stopped talking, deciding none of that mattered.
“The world is changing and you got no control over it, plain and simple,” he said. “Don’t matter what your beliefs are. Anyway, we’re just average people.”
They folded their arms. They watched the last dirt-slinging race of the night in a place they still felt free to be just average people, and soon it was over, and Sunday morning came, and it was time for church.
All week long, the Rev. Sonny Martin, pastor of Calvary Baptist, had been thinking about everything thing going on in the world and trying to decide what he was going to say about it all in his Sunday sermon.
“See, I haven’t experienced the hatred that a black man feels walking down the street,” he had said the day before church, trying to understand all the emotion behind the demonstrations, including the small one that had taken place in downtown Heflin in which 40 or so black and white residents chanting “no justice, no peace” had marched past City Hall. “I don’t know how it feels. Sometimes I guess it’s like depression – like, if you’ve not gone through depression you don’t know it. My son was killed in 2013 and people tried to give me advice, but they don’t know how it feels. Maybe it’s like that.”
He found himself reviewing his relationships with African Americans, such as the elderly woman who used to clean the streets downtown who he said he “loved,” but whose life he said he knew little about, or the African American worker at Lowe’s who always smiled at him, but who had not been smiling lately, at least as Martin perceived it.
“But there again, I didn’t ask him why,” he said.
He kept trying to understand why he found the Confederate flag ban so unnerving.
“Some say the flag is of hate. Some say it’s of heritage. My biggest concern is, if they can take one flag, how far will they go? Well, next it’s the American flag is offending me, so let’s take that too. I mean, there’s got to come a point where we get a hold of this.”
That was what was so unsettling about the moment, he said. It was hard to get a hold of. It was not in his control. It did not rest upon the old certainties of life in a place like Heflin.
Martin had prayed about all of that, and when Sunday came, people settled into the wooden pews, and the sun came through the stained-glass windows, and Martin stood at the front and said, “I have something the Lord has given me to say today.”
He was pacing. He was sweating. He looked out at the people of a small Southern town bracing for all that was to come and he told them.
“Time is running out,” he began.
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