Culture Places

Dixie Land

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I wrote last week about visiting the Johnson Shut-Ins, trying to get some photos of unusual rock formations. This was my first visit to this part of the state, heading southwest rather than my usual northwest.

It was a great day with cool weather but clear skies. As I drove South from St. Louis on I-55, I marveled at all the parks I passed along the way – fresh adventures, and I hadn’t exhausted all of the parks in my usual hiking territory. I tried to make note of them as I passed, but there were too many.

From I-55 I took US Hwy 67 to Framingham, and from there I needed to take Route W. Missouri has all of these back country routes that they’ve named after the letters of the alphabet, and it makes it hard not to miss them – they all look alike. Why couldn’t the state use something like “Missouri Arcadia Highway” or “Iron Road”, for Iron Mountain through which it traverses.

Route W was a beautiful 2-lane road in excellent condition, with hardly any other cars on it that day. As expected in the Ozarks it was hilly, and curvy, and green – even in the late fall, there was still green along side the road. I went through one small town, can’t remember the name, and a road crew was working on an old iron bridge that looked like it had been around forever. The men all wore uniform outfits of white t-shirts and baggy blue jeans, brown leatherwork boots and bright orange work crew vests and hats. One of the lanes was closed and as the sheriff waved me through, I couldn’t help staring at the men because to a person they all had brown hair, mustaches, and mirror sunglasses. The only difference between the men was height and build.

Several of the men saw me staring and tipped their hats. This is the backcountry of Missouri and these men’s mamas raised them to be polite. I tried to reciprocate the politeness by nodding back with slight, dignified smile, reminding myself that these men were not a raree show and to stop staring.

Not long after the workmen, I topped a hill and started passing what looked like some kind of farm supply company. Nothing unusual, except for a tall flagpole flying an old confederate flag. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. When you live in St. Louis, you sometimes forget Missouri’s civil war roots. Why, an estimated 1500 confederate soldiers had died in the battle of Pilot Knob, not but a few miles from my final destination.

I didn’t think much of the flag, or more of the flag then to think about its historic significance, until I passed another home in the woods and this one also had a confederate flag, but a much newer, more vividly colored one. And then I passed another house flying the flag, and then another, and then another.

I once wrote how disturbed I was by the homes flying the huge American flags with yellow ribbons in Kentucky. I think of them as examples of unthinking patriotism. Well, none of this exists in the iron country of the Ozarks, but I don’t believe what takes its place is an improvement.

From Route W, I had to take Highway 21 to reach the Shut-Ins. When I got to the park there were some people there, including other photographers. Normally I’d say hello and smile at folks, maybe chat about the view or the rocks or our cameras. That day, though, I kept my head down and found I couldn’t make eye contact with any of the other people. In fact, I found myself getting irritated with the people, the rocks, the water, and finally just left.

Of course, all of this surfaced this week with the uproar surrounding Howard Dean’s remarks about wanting to be “…the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Oh my.

I know where Dean is coming from, though he sure can stick his foot in his mouth at times. It wasn’t that long ago that I and others criticized Dean for surrounding himself with east coast college educated liberals. Can’t get more uncoast and unliberal than trucks with confederate flags. But what is a white man from the North going to know of the confederate flag? Kerry and Lieberman, for all of their outrage, they don’t know about it either – except as some symbol of backwoods inbred hicks that pollute this great nation of ours.

(I think I’ll get that put on a shirt. “Hi, I’m a backwoods inbred hick from Missouri and I sleep with my gun.”)

Gephardt is from Missouri, so he’s probably seen a truck, maybe even one with a confederate flag. But what’s his response to this issue?

“I don’t want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” Gephardt said in a statement. “I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks.”

So then we’re back to Kentucky, and home after home covered in American Flags and yellow ribbons. Or we’re back to a White House lawn, with Gephardt standing behind the President, promising his support for this war on terror in Iraq.

As for Clark, another man who might have seen a flag draped truck or two with his Arkansas background – cookie cutter responses with “NRA.” “Racially Divisive.” Basically it boils down to “Bad Mans. Pick me.”

I’m voting Democrat, but it’s damn hard at times. These men, they don’t have a clue what this is all about.

Along I-55 on the way home from my trip to the Shut-Ins, I passed a sign identifying that section of the highway as the Rosa Parks Highway, named for the black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person during the civil rights movement. The reason for the highway being named after her is an interesting story.

Back in 1994, the Ku Klux Klan wanted to adopt that stretch of I-55 as part of the adopt-a-highway program. If allowed, a sign with the Ku Klux Klan on it would have to be displayed along the side of the road. The Missouri Department of Transportation denied the request, and the KKK filed a freedom of speech suit. Eventually the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the Ku Klux Klan, and its right to free speech. Once the Supreme Court refused to hear Missouri’s case, the KKK was free to become part of the program.

But you know, the folks of Missouri never were the type to just take defeat. The Highway Department, with much fanfare, renamed the section of the Highway that the KKK claimed, as “Rosa Parks Highway”. If the KKK persisted with their insistence on being part of the program, they would be cleaning The Rosa Parks Highway.

Missouri. God, you have got to love the folks here at times.

Back to the trip and the flags, those symbolic flags. Last week, the worst part of the trip and traveling past those confederate flagged homes wasn’t that the flags were some kind of symbol of the NRA or racial hatred, whicheveryoneisagainst. The worst part of the day, for me, personally, was when I saw all those confederate flags and thought about walking in those woods all by myself, and remembered those men and their mirror sunglasses – and I felt relieved that I was white and not black. The year is 2003 and it was the middle of the day in the middle of the United States and I’m driving in my car thinking to myself that I’m glad I’m white and not black. No wonder I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes at the park.

After all the shouting and finger pointing, that’s really the issue. And I bet if Dean, or Gephardt, or Lieberman, or Kerry, or Clark, or even President Bush for that matter, had been in the car with me, they would have been relieved they were white, too. At least, this is my hope. I’d hate to think I was the only moral coward around.

The solution could be to just make flying the confederate flag illegal. But then there’s that free speech thing, and I’m not sure what’s scarier: the flags flying or the flags not flying because the government steps in. Open the door to that sort of thing and all sorts of bad stuff will start crawling out – like our current Attorney General, Ashcroft. You know, he’s from Missouri, too.

(The ACLU doesn’t have a problem knowing which is the better – they were the ones that filed suit for the KKK.)

The KKK dropped their claim on the Rosa Parks Highway, but then in 2001 applied to adopt another section of road. They’ve again been denied because the Highway department has instituted new rules that won’t allow groups to participate if they discriminate. When the KKK member applied and was asked whether his group discriminates, he answered, “Yes”. The issue is again heading back to the courts. Good thing there’s lots of civil rights worker names to call upon if need be.

As for the road the KKK wants to adopt, it’s in the Ozarks, in a place called Iron Mountain. A stretch of asphalt on Highway 21, near to some famous landmarks known as the Johnson Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks.

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