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The Podium

‘Cooter’ and ‘Fast Eddie’

Actor  Ben Jones, sits on the General Lee, the car used in the show "Dukes of Hazzard" in 1999. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Steve Helbe/AP

Actor Ben Jones sat on the General Lee, the car used in the show "Dukes of Hazzard" in 1999.

It isn’t every day that one makes preparations to go and play music for some friends but instead ends up being portrayed in the national press and on the Internet as some sort of antediluvian racist who should not be seen in the company of someone aspiring to the Senate. But that’s what happened to me Tuesday.

You think you have odd days? Try this on: I have a fine country-rock combo called “Cooter’s Garage Band,” so named because I played “Cooter” the mechanic on the enduring TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.” (Down South, a “cooter” is a turtle.) We play all over the country and have performed from supermarket parking lots to the Grand Ol’ Opry. On Tuesday we were heading to Washington, D.C., to play a fundraiser at a friend’s house for Rep. Ed Markey, who is running for US Senate in Massachusetts.

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I once served a couple of terms in Congress, and I liked Eddie. I found him to be smart and funny and a very capable legislator. So with the best of intentions, our band got fired up to help out. Then I received a call from a guy in Ed’s campaign who informed me that I was now a “persona non grata” at the affair because of statements I have made regarding the St. Andrews Cross Flag of the Confederacy, specifically its presence on the roof of the “General Lee,” the hot 1969 Dodge Charger which many thought was the real star of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

If you are wondering what Hazzard County has to do with Massachusetts politics, join the club. I haven’t heard from my old pal Eddie yet, but if he were to call, here is what I would tell him:

“Hey Eddie, you know I grew up in a railroad shack without plumbing or electricity, in an African American neighborhood called Sugar Hill, by a freight yard on the docks of Portsmouth, Virginia. Since I can remember I have had a deep affinity for black folks, with whom I shared work and weather and music and laughter and food and the daily struggles of people ‘on the wrong side of the tracks.’ When the great moral challenge of my generation came along, I knew which side I had to be on. During the civil rights movement I marched, demonstrated, sat-in, went to jail, was sucker-punched, shot at, had ammonia thrown in my eyes, and was threatened on a daily basis. But I saw a great change in my South, and in America, as a small group of courageous, non-violent men and women made history in front of the eyes of the world.

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When I ran for Congress after the “Dukes” was over, I campaigned as an unabashed Southern populist, and was elected because of strong support from the black communities of Atlanta. They all knew me as “Cooter,” and they had all seen me riding in that General Lee. But they also knew me as someone who was a brother-in-arms.

It seems to me, Eddie, that in this Internet world you and Al Gore invented, things are being simplified to the point of idiocy. So rather than having a serious discussion about the use of symbols, and the context of symbols, and the meaning of symbols, the argument has been boiled down to something like this: “Rebel flag bad. Racist! Me good. Not racist!”

Well, I reckon I am “old school.” To assume that a friend and former colleague should be banned from a fundraiser because the St. Andrews Battle Flag has been used by racist idiots like the KKK in their sad rituals raises a lot of questions:Are you assuming that black folks cannot tell the difference between a Confederate flag displayed at Antietam or Manassas and a Klan rally? Or between a Confederate flag on the “Dukes of Hazzard” and a Neo-Nazi meeting? And doesn’t the Klan also use the American flag? And the Christian Cross? Wouldn’t that make them equally as noxious? And don’t they wear bedsheets? Does that mean we should stop sleeping on them?

By the way, Eddie, I appeared at a big car show in Boston a few years ago and I’d never seen so many “Dukes” fans in one place! I know “Cooter” and that flag don’t cut it among the faculty over in Cambridge, but everywhere else in that Commonwealth I’ve been made very welcome.

Eddie, you could have just said, “Well, Jones is a pretty good guy and I agree with him on most things, but on this issue I disagree strongly.” And you would have heard some great music. Instead, I am left to wonder about your understanding of all those voters who grew up on our wacky TV show.

Ben Jones is a former Democratic congressman from Georgia.
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