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That Time A Freedom Rider Shot Down a Rebel Flag in Vietnam

The successive waves of de-Dixiefication that have washed over the South in the last five years have produced a number of arresting images. Bree Newsome triumphant atop the South Carolina state house flagpole, one rebel flag removed. New Orleans Robert E. Lee or Austin Jefferson Davis or Memphis Nathan Bedford Forrest floating off their pedestals into the sky, never to return. Now Richmond Robert E. Lee is being forced to serve his final public days as the mute star of his own vigorous public contextualization. Slide shows, graffiti, and dance are making for a remarkable send-off for the cornerstone of both Richmond’s Monument Avenue, from the get-go a mix of Confederate memorialization and real-estate hustle, and the Lost Cause, kinda same.

There’s another scene I want to add to this collection, from an earlier era of the war on Confederate propaganda. No photograph of it exists, so you will have to imagine the moment Freedom Rider Hank Thomas shot down a Confederate flag flying over an Army base in Vietnam.

After the Rides, Thomas continued organizing, working in Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama, among other places. Like other young men in the movement, he was eventually tracked down by his local draft board (St. Augustine, Florida, in Thomas’ case). It was 1963. He was told to come in and explain himself. Why had he not been keeping the board current on his mailing address as he moved around the south?

Two years later, Thomas was in Vietnam as an Army medic, his bet as the best way to survive his tour, physically and spiritually. It was a good bet, as it turned out, though there were a couple of close encounters with combat. And there was this one encounter, at an Army outpost, with a rebel flag.

I had to take some action, once. Some people wanted to fly the rebel flag. I was threatened with court martial because when they ran the rebel flag up the flagpole, I shot it down. I’m not that good a shot, but if you put a M16 on fully automatic and just point — 

I carried an M16, yes. I was a most unusual medic. I had a superstition. I was the most heavily armed medic you have ever seen. And this is the reason. I figured if I carried all this stuff, I will never get to use it. That was my rationale. And it almost happened, okay? 

After I opened fire everybody runs out and here I am standing there. And there’s this rebel flag on the ground. By this time, the lines were drawn between blacks and white. It was a tickly situation. So we had a meeting. You don’t get together with soldiers to have a meeting to go to the commander during wartime. You just don’t do that. But we went to the captain and said, “We’re not going to be over here fighting for our freedom and you’ve got these racist symbols here.” 

I could’ve been arrested right then and there and charged with mutiny. But if it was gonna get me back to the States, that would’ve been a good thing. So the word went out in our outfit, you cannot display the rebel flag.

Thomas recounted his Vietnam experiences to me when I interviewed him at his home outside Atlanta in 2007. That he would shoot down a rebel flag made perfect sense for someone whose life had been filled with protest. “It came natural to me,” said Thomas. His first “act of rebellion” came at 9 or 10, when he insisted a white door-to-door salesmen address his aunt be her last name and an honorific. Soon after he integrated the public library — by himself. At Howard University in 1960 he joined the Nonviolent Action Group and took part in numerous sit-ins. The next year he was on the bus that was attacked and firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. After brief R&R, Thomas was back on the bus, leading the Riders into Jackson.

Below is a fuller account from the interview of Thomas’ experience in Vietnam. You can also read an earlier post, in which Thomas compares and contrasts the experiences of returning to Vietnam and returning to Anniston.

You’re supposed to notify the draft board when you change your address, which I didn’t. Eventually a notice was sent to my home and my mother finally got in touch with me. I was supposed to report to the draft. No, I was supposed to come back to St. Augustine [Florida, his hometown] to explain to the draft board why I did not notify them. That’s when I began to hear what had happened to other folks — “they’re gonna get you.” I’d be subject to immediate induction, and a lot of those guys got put into combat infantry outfits. 

Some, of course, decided to just defy the draft board all together and submit to arrest, or they left for Canada. By then, I was married and had a baby on the way. So I decided, well, to make the best of the situation, if I go on and report for the draft, then I would have a choice I was told of what branch of service or what job you can get. And the only thing I could think of since I wasn’t crazy about combat was to become a medic. I didn’t know [laughs] – I thought all medics were in a hospital some place. A nice hospital. Little did I know you gotta have the medics where the infantry is. So lo and behold, I’m still with the infantry. 

I was inducted in ’63, and in ’65 I’m getting ready to go to Vietnam. And I’m thinking, “Ain’t this something? Just a couple of years ago you’re trying to kill me and now I’m going to Vietnam.” 

I knew absolutely nothing about Vietnam, like most of the soldiers who went over there. I started to read, and I knew that the French had been there. And something told me that it looks like we’re going in there to replace the French. How do I reconcile that? I knew about communism and all of this. How do I reconcile this with my beliefs? Well, I did by saying, “I’m a medic. And one thing I’m gonna do, my job is to try to save lives.” And I had decided I was gonna save the lives of U.S. soldiers, and if I get an opportunity I’ll try to save the lives of Vietnamese soldiers. 

But when I got to Vietnam, thankfully, the outfit that I was with was not involved in a great deal. No combat at all. So my job, since I was senior, was to supply medics to the other companies. With all of the patrolling and all of the movement, I was still out in the field. We would always go to the small, very, very rural Vietnamese villages. I got an opportunity to practice some of the medicine that I felt could salve my feelings about the war. We treated a lot of villagers. I carried extra medical supplies with me. It got to the point where I would carry an extra big boxy bag on my backpack that weighed as much as 50 or 60 pounds, full of medicines that could treat minor and tropical diseases. Often wherever they would see me and the great big box, the kids would come running up. Some of the other medics did the same. That was what I enjoyed doing. 

I did get an opportunity to work on a couple of wounded Vietnamese soldiers. At one point, much to the chagrin of some American officers. I remember one lieutenant telling me, “Don’t waste any medicine on that gook.” I had to remind him of the Geneva Convention, that this man’s a soldier, and that we would want our soldiers to be treated that way. I’m only a corporal. And I’m talking to an officer this way. That did not go down well with him, especially being a white Southerner. But medics always got the respect from the soldiers, because you’re the man that is gonna help them when they get wounded. So those were the things I did in Vietnam that made me, I guess you can say, reconcile what I was doing, in terms of what I knew. 

There was a lot of racism in the Army, both in the states and in Vietnam. It got really bad over there. The Army just about fell apart in Vietnam. It wasn’t so much when I was there, because I left in ’66. But ’67, ’68, it started to really fall apart because what was happening was you had kids who were coming from the inner cities. They had been participating in the revolutions in the inner cities. And they weren’t gonna take the stuff. When I was over there, there was a little bit of it. And there were some incidents. Fragging got started. I didn’t see any of it personally, but I heard about it. 

I had to take some action, once. Some people wanted to fly the rebel flag. I was threatened with court martial because when they ran up the rebel flag up the flagpole, I shot it down. I’m not that good a shot, but if you put a M16 on fully automatic and just point — 

I carried an M16, yes. I was a most unusual medic. I had a superstition. I was the most heavily armed medic you have ever seen. And this is the reason. I figured if I carried all this stuff, I will never get to use it. That was my rationale. And it almost happened, okay? 

I think I would carry about 200 rounds of ammunition. I’d have three or four grenades. I’d have a pistol. Medics are normally just armed with a pistol. One day this guy says, “What are you doing? You’re a medic!” I said, “Never mind. I got my reasons.” [Laughs.] And, of course, until that day I never had the need to shoot it. Well, I had been caught in a couple of ambushes. But I never had a chance to fire back. 

After I opened fire everybody runs out and here I am standing there. And there’s this rebel flag on the ground. By this time, the lines were drawn between blacks and white. It was a tickly situation. So we had a meeting. You don’t get together with soldiers to have a meeting to go to the commander during wartime. You just don’t do that. But we went to the captain and said, “We’re not going to be over here fighting for our freedom and you’ve got these racist symbols here.” 

I could’ve been arrested right then and there and charged with mutiny. But if it was gonna get me back to the States, that would’ve been a good thing. So the word went out in our outfit, you cannot display the rebel flag. Other outfits did. There weren’t just fistfights. There were a couple of shootings, and a situation where grenades were tossed into a tent where white white officers were, NCOs. It really got bad two years, three years after that. And then the publicity of the problems got started. I’ll never forget one captain being interviewed on CBS. He could not order his company out on patrol. When the cameraman asked him why, he said, “Because when the shooting starts, I don’t know who’s gonna be shooting at whom.” That’s just how difficult things were there. 

That’s when the Army realized it had a problem. And they began to work on it. I’ve written about it. I said the use of the word “nigger” was pretty common by some white officers. You can’t do that when the man you’re calling a nigger has a machine gun. Some of ’em found out the hard way. 

Another thing some soldiers used to do is, when they went into town, they would teach the Vietnamese racial slurs. And lots of Vietnamese, not really understanding, got roughed up by blacks for then saying these racial words to them. So the Vietnamese or the Vietcong or the Viet Minh were not the only problems that the Army had. To its credit, the Army did start to correct a lot of the stuff that was going on in the Armed Forces. It set the tone. By the time the Vietnam War was over, the Army had set the tone for a lot of the changes that have occurred in society. 

2007

Dave Morton, 1939-2020

Dave Morton never really looked like the clean-cut young American he played in his Freedom Rider mug shot. Before and after, he had a long flowing beard and longer flowing hair. “I looked like the Lutheran Christ,” he told me in 2006. Morton died in April in Duluth, MN, of diabetic complications. He was 80.

Twenty-one years old at the time of the Rides, Morton was already deep into his life as folksinger and poet and “reigning guru” of Dinkytown, the Greenwich Village/Haight-Asbury of Minneapolis. “I was the only one with long hair and funny clothes,” he later told Howard Sounes for Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. “The Beats looked like fucking Frank Sinatra. They didn’t have long hair and a beard. I was just wild.”

Morton was “Dinkytown’s link between the mystical 1950s Beats and the emerging 1960s hipsters,” writes Robert Shelton in Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. He was “a rigorously avant-garde experimenter in alternative cultures.” 

A gaunt six-foot-six, Morton looked like Abe Lincoln strung out in the East Village. Hair flowed from every pore; he had forelocks, a beard and mustache, and a mop cascading nearly two feet down his back. He radiated gentle, distilled wisdom, [and] had a reservoir of Eastern aphorisms. 

Morton was also, writes Shelton, “a considerable influence on [Bob] Dylan,” one of “the best professors in Dylan’s peripheral university,” aka Dinkytown, during Dylan’s brief stint at the University of Minnesota.

Morton grew up mostly in St. Paul. His father was a jeweler who taught art at the U of M. He began playing music as a child. “I didn’t get my own guitar until I was 12, but I played my mother’s, and the piano, of course.” In 1948, when Morton was 8, his mother took him to see the influential folk and blues musician Lead Belly. That gave him enormous street-cred a decade later in the emerging folk scene in Dinkytown, where Morton had taken up residence after dropping out of the university. The 10 O’Clock Scholar, a tiny coffeehouse, was the heart of the scene for musicians, poets, artists, activists. Morton is credited with giving the first live music performance there, playing from the tiny stage below the street-facing window, in 1958. The next year, Dylan would play some of his first gigs there.  

Vic Kantowski was a classics student, and he did old, old English songs. He played the banjo, and we become a duo. He’d do a song, I’d do a song, we’d do a song together. Vic and I were the first guys to play the Scholar. And then, in the spring and fall [of 1959], [John] Koerner and Dylan showed up on the scene, and that’s when I met them. 

I was playing folk music, a little blues, but I ain’t a blues band like my buddy, Dave Ray, who was a student of mine. He’s younger, and he’s gone, but he was a student of mine. He lived right by the Scholar, and I’d go down there after school and go down the basement and give him a few lessons on chord changes. 

His dad would say, “Jesus Christ!” because I looked like I do today, except my hair was brown. So I looked like the Lutheran Christ. He’d say, “Jesus Christ!” but he didn’t get mad. He just said, “What are you doing to my son?” 

But Dave and both of his younger brothers all turned out to be really good guitar players and musicians, you know. All I did is a little bit of tweaking. You didn’t teach them. You just said, “Well, here’s a few little tricks I know,” and then they go on with them, eh, so. 

What I asked him what he had taught Dylan, he said, “I didn’t teach him anything because you couldn’t teach the dumb son of a bitch anything,” and then laughed heartily at his own well-worn joke.    

I can’t say that I taught Dylan anything because he was just one of the boys. My buddies David Whitaker and Herschel Kaminsky taught him politics. Whitaker was a high school buddy of mine and a radical, very intelligent on politics. Kaminsky from New York, he was a socialist. They kind of took him and talked to him. Whitaker was as small as Dylan, like my daughter. I got a daughter like that. I got a tall one. I got a short one. Dylan’s short. Whitaker was short and intense. And they kind of taught him his politics, because he wasn’t political when he showed up. He was playing the guitar and this and that.

I did tell him, “If I can write songs, you can write songs.” Eh, he turned out pretty good.

In June 1961, Morton joined five Minneapolis friends to go to Jackson on the Rides. “I had a nice apartment, a cute girlfriend, and then one day Zev [Aelony] calls me up and says, ‘Eh, you want to go to jail?’ ” 

For Morton, it was an easy yes.  

How can I explain? I was raised radical. I’m still a radical. My kids are radicals, trust me. My parents weren’t commies but they were radical. 

I happen to be an anarchist and a pacifist rather than a bomb-throwing anarchist. What I always say is, “The problem with voting is the government always gets in.” I’m not a socialist or a communist. My folks were kind of red when they were young, not members, but you know, what do you call them, fellow travelers. That means I know people like Pete Seeger, who I do know and etc., etc. I grew up that way, and I’m an anarchist. 

He was also an anarchist who knew how to dress for successful protest. “I don’t remember much about the early planning,” emailed Gene Uphoff, another member of the Minneapolis group, when I asked him recently for any memories of Morton. “But we all felt it was important to present ourselves as ‘clean-cut all-American students’ so as to blunt public criticism of our motives. Consequently we were all clean-shaven. Dave left his beatnick/hippie identity in Minneapolis. He took seriously the importance of what we all hoped we might accomplish. I think his willingness to engage so conscientiously in the movement was testimony to the depth of his convictions.”

When I asked Morton what he remembered about the trip, he talked about their stop in Nashville, where they stayed for a few days before going into Jackson. 

We came to Nashville, and we got put up in a house. A black woman owned the house, and there was no guy around. We took her out to lectures. That would be my favorite thing. I mean, this old lady – I can’t remember her name – she took us in, and she had the little rag rugs, like the Finlanders make up here [northern Minnesota], and she fed us. She said we were heroes. 

I didn’t feel like a hero. She would be the hero.

When the six Minneapolis Riders flew home after their time in Parchman, they were met at the airport by then-mayor Arthur Naftalin and a boisterous crowd of several hundred, all there to celebrate. The Riders responded by breaking into song, leading an impromptu hootenanny of freedom songs on the tarmac. Mayor Naftalin then whisked the six off to city hall for a more formal official welcoming and press conference.  

When we got out of jail, after putting our month and a half in, we flew into Minneapolis, and we were met at the airport with hundreds of people. We had a parade from the airport to the courthouse. There were cars after cars. The mayor was [Arthur] Naftalin, who was a pretty radical politician, and welcomed us as heroes.

Didn’t particularly feel like a hero, but I knew the guys from Michigan and California I was in jail with, I knew they didn’t get a reception like that. It was on the news. It was on the front page of The Star. The best thing, I went to Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. He wouldn’t take a penny from me. “You’re money is no good here.” He was just a straight working guy, but he had all these college students and graduate students, so he got radicalized. 

Freedom Riders singing at the airport after their return to Minneapolis.

Airport hootenanny, summer of ’61. The Minneapolis Freedom Riders, from left: Marv Davidov, Zev Aelony, Dave Morton, Gene Uphoff (kneeling, on guitar), Claire O’Connor, and Bob Baum. Photograph by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

After the Rides, Morton was on the move for rest of the ’60s. He traveled back and forth to both coasts, spending time in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New Mexico, and Minneapolis, among other places. “I wandered around,” he told me.

In 1964 he was living in Los Angeles, and with friends started the New Improved Jook Savages, a rock-n-roll jug band. Richard Moon, one of the original members, described the Savages as “an extremely loose congregation of poets/film-makers/poster artists/musicians/hipsters/and general all-round weirdness.” All were welcome, and there were sometimes 20 or more people on stage during a performance, playing a variety of instruments that included jugs, washboards, washtub bases, and kazoos. One of their most popular songs was “Smokin’ My Dope,” a Morton composition.      

As in Dinkytown, Morton was once again at the heart of the scene. “We moved into the house on Miramar Street with a bunch of crazy artists from Chouinaurd Art Institute,” said Moon. “Alan Ginsberg was around, came to our rehearsal and taught us to chant and meditate.” 

In early 1966, the Savages played Ken Kesey’s Watts Acid Test (which apparently was actually held in Compton) along with the Grateful Dead. They played a few more acid tests in Los Angeles, then headed north. Moon’s account:   

We moved up to San Francisco, where we landed in the middle of the ’60s as part of the explosion of the Haight-Ashbury scene. We played at the psychedelic shop where Rick Griffin made our poster and overnight became one of the icons of the SF poster scene.

We played the Fillmore and many of the trips festivals, and we played all the acid tests, including the big one at Muir beach, with all the bands and Richard Albert, not yet Baba Ram Dass.

SF was the most exotic event in the world then. The Dead, the Airplane, the Charlatans, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Country Joe, Blue Cheer were all on the scene and we played with all of them. We were part of the Committee Theater. We lived up on the hill in Larkspur Canyon, and tortured the entire area with our music.

We were unquestionably the weirdest thing out there. The Mothers of Invention used to invite us out to their gigs to “freak people out.” Elliot, their guitar player, said, “You guys make us look like the Beach Boys!”

 

The Jook Savages and friends on the steps of the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco, on the day of the Peace March on April 3, 1967. Dave Morton sits in the middle right, wearing a red suit and looking at the camera. That night the Savages played a houseboat party that was a celebration of the wedding of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

 

Dave Morton and his wife, Shirley Morton, in 1966

 

Rick Griffin was an art student in Los Angeles and an original member of the Savages. He soon became one of the most celebrated poster artists of the San Francisco scene. Above and below are two posters he created for the Savages.

In the early ’70s, Morton left the road and returned to Minnesota. He lived outside Angora, in the northern part of the state, and worked as a cement finisher on industrial construction projects until he retired in 2001. All the while he continued to make jewelry, make art, and play music with friends,  occasionally with members of the Savages as they passed through. 

“Music was Morton’s lifeblood; life was a party,” wrote his daughter Maija Jensen in an obituary for her father. “He sang until the day he died.”

Dave Morton at his home outside Angora, MN. 2006. 

Rev. Reginald Green, 1939-2020

“I spent my 21st birthday in jail in Parchman.”

Reginald Green went to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider in the summer of 1961 without telling his parents.

I never asked my father and mother if I could go on the Freedom Rides, for fear that they would say no. Out of respect I would have honored their direction. So, rather than have to face that, I just decided that I would go.

Green, then a sophomore at Virginia Union, in Richmond, was an obedient son. But like so many of the black southern college students who streamed into Jackson in the first days of the Rides there, he was also a movement veteran. The year before he had taken part in the sit-ins at Richmond’s finest department store, Thalhimers, and other targets.

His trip to Jackson, like his sit-ins in 1960, was not however a product of any college radicalization. It was instead the result of his upbringing and education in Washington, DC, as well his father’s activist example.

My going on the Freedom Rides was no accident. It didn’t happen overnight. The experiences of my life, the challenges of growing up in the city, my educational training, the fact that I would get to hear many of these public figures like Howard Thurman or Mordecai Johnson when I was in junior high school and high school — my English teacher would take us to Howard to hear these important speakers. Benjamin Mays was president of Morehouse for years and we would go to hear him. This stuff gets internalized. And, then, of course, my father, along with many others, was very active in the Southwest Citizens’ Association, which was the reason why certain of the playgrounds began to open up to African-Americans students that, before, in the ’40s and early ’50s were closed off. 

Green eventually graduated Virginia Union in 1964, and then again in 1967 with a graduate degree in theology. He returned to DC and led the Walker Memorial Baptist Church until he retired in 2006.

When I interviewed him in 2007, he told me about the first time he felt afraid on the Rides, right before his Trailways bus arrived in Jackson.

I remember going into Mississippi. About five minutes before we got to Jackson, someone turned up the radio and this is what we heard: “There are some more niggers and more nigger-lovers — some of them damn Freedom Riders! — coming and they don’t know what kind of trouble they’re getting into.”

That was probably the first time that I really got frightened, cause it was just three of us on the bus. [Ray Randolph and Obadiah Simms, fellow students at Virginia Union, were on the same bus, but none of the three were sitting together, to avoid suspicion]. I was thinking, anything could happen.

“Anything” turned out to be several weeks locked up at Parchman Prison, a destination he has not anticipated.

I didn’t know much about Parchman. All I knew is once we got to the county jail [in Jackson] I heard the word “Parchman,” and I said, “Uh-oh [laughs]. Oh boy, maybe I should have studied more about Parchman before I left, I might not have come.”

The guards in Jackson told us we were being transferred and I figured we were just being transferred to another cell. Some of the other Riders, like Jim Farmer [the head of CORE, sponsor of the Rides] may have known or somebody may have known, but I don’t think all of us knew until we got there. I know it was a long trip. It was dark when we left [Jackson], it was day break when we got there.

I remember making the trip. They packed us all in a big van with only a little side window. The driver stopped somewhere along the way to rest, and then pulled his gun and said, “I ought shoot ya’ll’s so-and-so brains out.” All of a sudden everybody said, “Well, we still love you brother.” I remember that very vividly. 

Portrait of Freedom Rider Reginald Green
2007

I probably should have led this obit with the fact that in junior high, Rev. Green was the lead singer of a “little singing group, a rock-and-roll group, and the first tenor was Marvin Gaye.” He usually got to that fact pretty quickly in his talks, and why not? Did Marvin Gaye ever back you up? The group covered songs by the Ink Spots, the Ravens, the Orioles, the Spaniels, and others.  

I did a number of presentations with Green, including the first one for my book, in 2008, at the Smithsonian in DC. That program included a panel with Green and another Rider, Joan Trumpauer. A few questions in blanked on anything I could ask either of them. Panic! Finally my brain tossed up the memory of Green telling me about singing in Parchman. I asked, he was off, and I was saved.

I love music, so singing was a major part of my sanity [in Parchman].

Early in the morning you’d sing some or at night you’d sing or during the day you’d sing. And of course the jailers wanted you to stop singing.  They would tell you to stop singing those songs, be quiet back there. And we’d keep on singing. 

It was mostly just automatic, spontaneous. You’d start singing or I’d start something, everybody would join in. Or Farmer would start something and everybody would start singing, you couldn’t miss his booming voice. He had this deep, resonant voice. Farmer had a favorite one, “What side are you on boy, what side are you on?”

I always liked, “And before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.” What we did was take the spiritual — cause the spiritual just says “and before I be a slave” and so on — then we just added a new first line: “No more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow over me, and before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

You just add whatever first line you wanted: no more dying, no more beatings, no more colored fountains, words like that.

I made many more presentations with Rev. Green over the years, and always asked him to sing that song. It always seemed the most real way to explain the Freedom Rides. All my words and photographs paled in comparison to this one voice singing the same lines he had once sung in his cell in Unit 7, Maximum Security, Parchman.

Maybe you can hear what I mean.

2013: Rev. Green sings “Oh Freedom” at a DC presentation. From left: Riders Hank Thomas, Dion Diamond (mostly obscured), Rev. Green, Joan Mulholland, and Rep. John Lewis.
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