Question of the Month:

Kid Rock and the NAACP

June 2011

Q:  You gave a thought-provoking presentation at the NAACP's forum on hate. But I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that you did not mention that the organization was giving an award to Kid Rock the following day. He performs with confederate flags on stage.

--Eller Jones - Detroit, Michigan

Kid Rock in Concert

A:  I shudder to think what race relations in the United States would be like had not the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others – for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and National Urban League – worked to gain civil rights for African Americans and other minorities. From its inception in 1909, the NAACP has been a leader combating injustice; you need look no further than its courageous battle against lynchings in the first half of the 20th century, and its sustained fight against forced racial segregation and institutionalized racism. The NAACP has an earned reputation as an organization committed to social justice. For these reasons, I have a great deal of respect for the NAACP.

When I heard that the Detroit branch of the NAACP was honoring Kid Rock (born Robert James Ritchie) with a "Great Expectation Award" at its annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, I was, in a word, befuddled. The NAACP is a politically liberal organization dominated by Christians. The organization has a long history of fighting racism, including racist imagery. Kid Rock is a politically right-leaning, hard-partying hedonist, who regularly performs with an oversized Confederate flag – www.youtube.com/watch?v=irpAL80Fkjs. "True it is," wrote Charles Dudley Warner in 1850, "that politics makes strange bedfellows."

I was reared in Mobile, Alabama, during the later stages of the civil rights movement. At that time, the Confederate flag was an unabashed symbol of white supremacy. Civil rights protestors were frequently confronted with Confederate flag waving, racially taunting bigots. Some things don't change. Today, I often hear white southerners say that the Confederate flag represents "heritage not hate." I suppose that is possible; symbols, after all, have different meanings for different people. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the fact that modern-day white supremacy groups often march with Confederate flags. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find a Ku Klux Klan rally where some of the supporters are not waving Confederate flags. It is safe to say that the Confederate flag has been appropriated by modern white supremacists. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 500 extremist groups use the Confederate flag as one of their symbols.

Reflecting on my years in Mobile, I now realize that the Confederate flag also signified white space, meaning, places where blacks were not welcome. Those flags were most common in rigidly and thickly segregated neighborhoods, spaces where blacks were seen and treated as outsiders. The Confederate flag was a visible, waving symbol that the "Old South" and its cultural attitudes, tastes, and values were still alive. Some messages don't die. To this day, I feel unwelcome and on guard in neighborhoods flying Confederate flags.

Kid Rock has claimed on more than one occasion that the Confederate flag is, for him, a non-racist symbol. In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, he stated, "Sure, it's definitely got some scars, but I've never had an issue with it. To me it just represents pride in southern rock 'n' roll music, plus it just looks cool."1 It may represent coolness for Kid Rock but it has different meanings for some members of his southern white audiences and for black people throughout the nation.

You were not the only person offended at the NAACP's decision to honor Kid Rock. Adolph Monger, a local activist, called honoring the singer, "a slap in the face of anyone who fought for civil rights in this country. It's [the Confederate flag] a symbol of hatred and bigotry." Not surprisingly, Monger and several dozen protestors demonstrated outside the Cobo Center where the Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner was held. Well, they did more than picket; they burned a replica of the Confederate flag.

Life is full of irony. Monger and the other protestors directed most of their displeasure at Reverend Wendell Anthony, President of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Reverend Anthony owes some of his prominence to his life as an activist and protestor. In 1993, Reverend Anthony organized and led a march of over 250,000 persons in the city of Detroit to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the March of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Detroit in June of 1963. In 1995, Reverend Anthony served as a Co-Chairman for the Million Man March Committee.

Reverend Anthony has an impressive resume as an activist committed to social justice. For example, in 1994, under his leadership and direction, the Detroit Branch of the NAACP raised nearly one million dollars for, food, medicine, clothing and transportation to aid thousands of refugees in Rwanda and Zaire. In March of 1996, he founded the Fellowship Chapel Health Care Clinic in Cape Coast, Ghana, providing medical service to children and adults. In 2000, he organized Project D.R.E.A.M.Z.S. (Detroit Relief Effort to Aide Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa) to aid flood victims. Reverend Anthony traveled to those countries and personally distributed food, medicine, and clothing. He has also created mentoring programs for Detroit youth and helped many people in the city find clothing, jobs, and housing. Reverend Anthony sits on some of the most powerful boards in Detroit and in Michigan, and he represents well the interests of people who are often voiceless.

Friends disagree. Allies disagree. I disagreed with the decision to honor Kid Rock with an award from a civil rights organization. Of course, one could argue that I did not (and do not) really know the entertainer. Before my lecture on the evening before the Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, I spoke with Reverend Anthony and others about the Detroit chapter's decision to honor Kid Rock. More importantly, I had a chance to listen.

They described Kid Rock as a philanthropist who, often without fanfare, donates thousands of dollars to organizations that aid poor people. That is good. Indeed, the night he was honored he gave $50,000 to local charities and another $50,000 to help the tornado victims in Alabama, my home state. That, too, is good. Initially, I had thought that Kid Rock's award was primarily celebrity-driven. Americans are, after all, obsessed with being physically close to celebrities. But, the more I listened and watched the more I came to believe that the NAACP's decision to give an award to Kid Rock had a great deal to do with how many Detroiters see both themselves and their city.

As is true of many big cities, Detroit faces daunting challenges, chief among them a population decline of more than 50 percent in recent decades, a public school system that by most accounts is failing, elevated property taxes, an unacceptably high crime rate, too much abandoned or demolished property, and a history of political corruption. Although it would be hard to measure, I would hypothesize that Detroit is one of the most insulted cities in the country. There is an objective basis to the insults, but we would be naive to not recognize that some of the belittling of Detroit has a racial tinge; the city is, after all, mostly black – surrounded by wealthy suburbs populated, in large part, by whites who left Detroit and took their tax dollars with them.

Detroit is one of my favorite cities and I go there often. I enjoy watching the Tigers play, and heaven help me, I have paid good money to watch the Lions. Detroit is the closest place where I can find real down-home cooking; think: fried catfish. When I am in church in Detroit it feels like I am in church in Mobile. I have many former students in the city, including Khalid el-Hakim, who created the Black History 101 Mobile Museum.2 It gives this old teacher's heart a good tug to see my former students making contributions as ministers, teachers, business leaders, politicians, and civil servants. I regularly give lectures in Detroit which gives me many opportunities to meet people who work in grassroots organizations – I hasten to add – there are many positive people and groups in the city working to improve the lives of others. And, I can't emphasize this enough: the residents are fiercely committed to the city. They know Detroit has problems, but they love the city and its promise.

Why did the Detroit branch of the NAACP give the award to Kid Rock? The answer is this: a famous white son of a besieged mostly black city has proudly identified himself with the city. For example, at the 2010 American Music Awards, Kid Rock performed "Times Like These," with lyrics about Detroit's economic struggle during the auto crisis and recent recession. In January 2011, he held his 40th birthday party at Ford Field in downtown Detroit; over 60,000 fans gathered for a three hour concert which became a de facto tribute to the city. "I was born in Michigan and I'm gonna die in Michigan," he said, to cheers from the crowd. "Never forget your roots."

Like I said, I initially found the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP's decision to honor Kid Rock confusing. And, after listening to the organization's leaders talk I have a better and deeper understanding of why they choose to honor the singer. Nevertheless, I disagree with their decision. This undoubtedly says something about me, namely, I have not separated the man from the flag. Kid Rock grew up in Detroit. He grew up with black people. He has a bi-racial son. He regularly performs with black artists. However, it is clear to me that he does not understand or care about the racial symbolism that the Confederate flag represents for many black people. That is not good. When he performs before all-white or mostly-white country audiences he uses the Confederate flag as a way to validate his presence. That, too, is not good. I expressed my thoughts privately to the NAACP leadership; they listened, but disagreed. I did not see the value in criticizing them from the lectern.

It seems somehow fitting to end this rather lengthy response with the lyrics from Kid Rock's song, "Son of Detroit."

I like to play Hank Williams Jr. records
Just as loud as they will rock
I'm into Lynyrd Skynyrd, Run DMC
And DJ Scott La Rock

I like Willie, Waylon, George and Merle
And a lot of ZZ Top
I like country, soul, rock and roll
And I love me some hip hop

I'm a redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit
I don't like no new wave techno band around
When I'ma drink a couple dozen beers I go out and jam some gears
I'm a long haired, redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit

I got a Bourget and a West Coast Chopper
Sure make them women stare
I got a dead flamingo wrapped around
This cowboy hat I wear

I like to cuss, yell, scream, fight
And raise all kinds of hell
And if you ride to live like I live to ride
Let me hear y'all Detroit yell

Redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit
I don't like no new wave techno band around
When I'ma drink a couple dozen beers I go out and jam some gears
I'm a long haired, redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit

I like my whiskey straight up
Daiquiris, they make me ill
And if someone touches my beaver skin
I get mad enough to kill

I got a rifle rack in my pick up truck
I'm a four wheelin' maniac
And if you wanna race just name the place
I'ma show you where it's at

I'm a redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit
I don't like no new wave techno band around
When I'ma drink a couple dozen beers I go out and jam some gears
I'm a long haired, redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit
I'm that long haired, redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit
I'm that long haired, redneck, rock and roll son of Detroit


1 See, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/jun/12/popandrock.features, accessed May 5, 2011.

2 See, http://www2.metrotimes.com/culture/story.asp?id=13317, accessed May 10, 2011.

June 2011 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.


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