EXCLUSIVE: A week after “Dukes of Hazzard” stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider defended the Confederate flag painted on the roof of the show’s famed General Lee – a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger – Ben Jones, who played Cooter the mechanic, is echoing the sentiments of his costars that the flag, adopted by the Confederate South, has become a “target” in recent years.
“It’s not what they call the stars and bars. It is not that at all. It’s the Confederate battle flag of St. Andrew’s Cross, but it represents the South,” Jones, who was a Democratic Georgia congressman from 1989 to 1993, told Fox News of the television show, which aired on CBS from 1979 until 1985 and took place in the fictional Hazzard County, Ga.
The show has come under fire in recent years as conversations about Confederate symbols and statues have become a hot-button issue. Following ongoing conversations about systemic racism in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, the Duke Boys’ car has been thrust into the public spotlight once again.
“This thing that you talk about didn’t happen until about 15 or 20 years ago,” Jones, 78, said of the cries denouncing the Confederate flag. “Remember, the ‘Dukes’ came along long after the Civil Rights Movement, 15 years later. And it’s the South, and we’re shooting [the show] in Atlanta and we’re Black and White together. And that flag on top of that car, there wasn’t a single peep about it. Nobody complained at all.”
“In fact, as I said, Black people loved the show and related to it,” he continued, adding that criticism of the flag “wasn’t until after the show was off the air.”
In this Aug. 10, 1999, file photo, ‘Cooter,’ actor Ben Jones, sits atop one of the 229 hotrods, named The General Lee, used in the show ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ in front of his store in Sperryville, Va.
“I think one time, producers told me that they got one letter about it the whole time that we were on the air. And this is a show that 30 million people were watching every week. Not like now, you know, a hit show is maybe 10 million [viewers],” added Jones, who claimed the official flag of the Ku Klux Klan was the American flag, not the Confederate flag.
Still, the Confederate flag is an object of scorn and seen as a symbol of racism by critics.
“And if you buy totally into the argument that the Civil War is about slavery and nothing else, I could understand how people would be concerned about that,” Jone said. “I’m a student of history, and I see it as that’s just a Southern symbol – very popular until it suddenly, in the last 15, 20 years, it’s become unpopular.”
Jones said despite the decades-long conversation within the Black community condemning the Confederate flag as an increasing visual proponent of racism and hate, the flag itself has become a convenient bullseye. He feels strongly that removing it solves nothing.
“I think it’s an easy target, you know, that doesn’t solve anything in taking them down. But it hurts a lot of feelings,” Jones continued. “You know, it’s divisive rather than unifying. I think the whole movement to erase things, cultural cleansing is what it is. And I’m older, man – I don’t feel like being culturally cleansed. I love everybody. And I have sort of made that my life’s work. But I’m not going to come back on this one because there’s no point in it. What’s next? What do you do then? What else doesn’t please somebody?”
Pressed on why the Confederate flag has seemingly taken a life of its own as an inherent symbol of racism and White supremacy in the U.S., Jones said he disagrees with the visual representation. He called the flag of the fallen Confederacy a “symbol of rebellion and that rebellious spirit.”
“I’ve lived in the South all my life and I ain’t seen them since the 1960s, really,” said Jones. “I mean, that just – they ain’t here anymore.”
“They’re hateful people. There are hateful people of all races that are bigots, but they don’t have that happen anymore,” he continued. “40,000 members of those hate groups and 80 million Americans who are descended from the Confederacy – Yes, they lost the war. And I think that’s a good thing. But at the time, we can’t – historians call it presentism, judging the past by the present, by present morals and standards and information and trends and all that. And that’s a mistake historically.”
Jones said he “totally disagrees” with the premise that the Confederate flag itself has seemingly taken a life of its own as a symbol of White supremacy.
Former Rep. Ben ‘Cooter’ Jones, D-Ga. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
“You say that, but it’s spin. It’s not historically correct,” he said. “Those are a bunch of racists. I mean, what you’re talking about is racism. You’re talking about the racists. The racists, you know – people are stupid. There are a lot of stupid people, there are a lot of mean-spirited people and narrow-minded people.”
During the conversation – which lasted nearly 80 minutes – Jones explained his history living in Atlanta and his work in politics and the film commission. He said at the time in which they were shooting “The Dukes of Hazzard” he lived in an apartment in the King District and often worked with Coretta Scott King and coordinated basketball events with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, Martin Luther King III, in the early 1990s.
“Andy Young and John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy and all of them – we were friends and we worked together after ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’” Jones prefaced.
“And I go off to Congress and the Georgia flag, which hung on our offices had the rebel battle flag on it and that was changed years ago. So this has happened much more recently. And I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s become almost a hysteria that anything associated with that flag suddenly is evil and racist.”
Catherine ‘Daisy’ Bach, Tom ‘Luke’ Wopat, John ‘Bo’ Schneider and The General Lee.
When told that part of the argument from the Black perspective on the Confederate flag centers on stout societal experience by Black people who have endured bouts of racism and injustice from those who have been opposed to the lives of Black people and the longing for Black people to get ahead in life – and that in minority communities the rebel flag has swiftly become an emblem for people who detract such desires – Jones said he understands the fight. However, he believes the message is misguided.
“I hear what you’re saying, but I think that’s a canard,” he said. “It’s a new movement and it’s picked out this flag as an easy target, I think.”
Asked point-blank why he believes the Confederate flag has become a symbol for hatred and bigotry towards Black people – even in recent times as he claims – Jones pointed to the June 17, 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Roof entered the South Carolina haven and fired rounds at African Americans during a Bible study, killing nine.
“I think of one thing, and it was one of the most devilish things that ever happened – and that was the kid [Dylann Roof] in South Carolina that went in a church in Charleston,” Jones said. “That kid who shot those people in Charleston, he was just an inbred idiot and I’d pay to see him fried. Frankly, I just despise everything that he stood for.”
John Calef attends a protest in support of a Confederate flag’s removal from the South Carolina capitol grounds on June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
(Joe Raedle/ 2015 Getty Images)
Jones said the media is partially responsible for painting the cause of the shooting as racially-motivated.
“Nothing was said about it and a week or two later – some days later, a picture was found with him with a rebel flag,” said Jones. “And that was in the national news all over everywhere. And I probably know hundreds of thousands of people who have rebel flags. I mean, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ it’s all over the show. You know, we sell them and they’re on the top of the car, they’re on the jigsaw puzzles, they’re on everything. It’s not uncommon.”
“But this kid was a hateful kid. Think about how many pictures there were of that kid with an American flag. Probably all his life,” Jones maintained. “You know, every time his picture was taken at school or a game or anything – there’s the American flag. But they found that picture with a rebel flag. And that became – ‘Here we go.’
“The NAACP some years ago made a big issue out of it and that was to get it off the state flag in Georgia. And that was a big battle,” Jones added, noting that he himself, is a lifelong member of the national organization. “And the same as it just happened in Mississippi – here we are in 2020, you know. So this is a relatively new thing. Not to say that racism is new or that the feelings about the rebel flag are new, but symbols mean different things to different people at different times.”
Fox News asked Jones why the argument he makes– that the Confederate flag is nothing more than a battle sign – hasn’t been pushed strongly enough by those denouncing the flag and its visual association with bigoted racism. Jones said they’ve been trying to push that message for “years.”
“We did it. We’ve done it,” lauded Jones. “I’m a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I’m also a life member of the NAACP. And years ago, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are a serious heritage group…”
Still, some critics argue that Jones’ argument on the Confederate flag has grown enough to carry itself because the message is oftentimes overshadowed by the flag’s negative association. Jones agreed that that “makes sense.”
“ I can understand that. I can see that. I see it myself because, you know, that has been pushed as an agenda. This is an agenda now. It’s an agenda of the left,” Jones said. “And they’ve got an enormous amount of money behind it. We do not.”
Jones maintained: “We simply have these people, you know, who were in our ancestry who went off thinking they were doing the right thing. And some of them got killed. Some of them didn’t come home, a lot of them got shot up. But all the South had left was a little bit of pride.”
Furthermore, Jones said he also found pride in the idea that he believed the overall imagery behind the rebel flag was shifting into a positive light when the “Dukes” was on the air – only to be desecrated by those who hijacked it for their own agenda.
“Our show is the sweetest, harmless, colorblind, good guys always win, nobody gets hurt. And it had a huge Black audience,” he said. “So to me, if you want to put an asterisk by it – you know, you see a rebel flag in a museum, you put an asterisk by it and you put a context around it. You say, ‘Well, that was then and this is now and then you see these other flags that used the same symbol – that X that St. Andrew’s Cross – and you say, ‘Well, there’s that.’”
Jones continued: “And then you see a Ku Klux Klansman waving a rebel flag and he likely has no teeth and no sense and they’re pathetic people. They’re sad people, and they p— me off. And so yeah, they are desecrating a flag that my people died under. I mean, I see it on the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and it’s like, we were finally able to do some really positive and transcend all that crap and is watched all over the world by White people, by red people, yellow people and Black people and Brown people.”
Ben Jones aka Cooter of TV’s Dukes of Hazzard performs onstage during Dr. Ralph Stanley Forever: A Special Tribute Concert at Grand Ole Opry House on October 19, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
Recently, a northern Illinois auto museum announced it made the decision not to remove the car from its display.
Asked why the South hadn’t simply adopted one of the varieties of flags they had at their disposal at the time, Jones simply asked what difference would such a move have made. He believes that any chosen flag would still be used by people who are racist in our current generation.
“You have a generation that has been taught every day that it’s a hateful symbol and if you’re taught that you’re going to believe that,” said Jones. “Modern times, this is here. This thing is more recent and it has been it has not brought people together as Dr. [Martin Luther] King hoped for.”
“It was not the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners dining together at the table of brotherhood. It’s quite the opposite,” continued Jones. “It’s saying, ‘You know what? Now you use that flag. You can’t know that that’s wrong. You’re hateful. That’s bad. It should be destroyed. It should be put away. And we just don’t buy it.’ I mean, if I go to school and I’m being taught every day, that is a symbol of hatred, I’d feel the same way. Well, I wasn’t. I studied it and I studied it in the context of real-life stuff happening.”
Asked if he believes Black people are engaged in a battle worth standing for with regards to police brutality and social and racial injustice, Jones said it’s “always a fight for everybody.” But he made it a point to note that “Blacks got the short end of the stick.”
“Absolutely. That’s always a fight for everybody, you know. I mean, Blacks got the short end of the stick. They’re in a social and economic trap, historically,” said Jones. “And a lot of that has to do – if you study history, it’s easy to understand that stuff. And that’s why the Civil Rights Movement was a great Southern thing.”
Fox News’ Tyler McCarthy contributed to this report