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Different people spent the King holiday weekend in different ways. Down at the Mall on Saturday afternoon, as many as half a million folks of all ages stood in the cold to promote Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence. At the same time, a few blocks north, a smaller but equally diverse group waited in long lines inside the Washington Convention Center to get near the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard.
The General Lee, for the unfamiliar, was the souped-up street rod from the CBS series that made its debut in 1979, joining The Incredible Hulk and Dallas in the Friday-night lineup. The car, according to the Dixified story line, belonged to cousins Bo and Luke Duke, a pair of do-gooding former moonshiners who, along with cousin and T&A-provider Daisy Duke (the character credited with making denim short shorts fashionable), were constantly in trouble with the bad lawmen of Hazzard County, a fictional, generically Deep Southern locale.
The auto, which was actually a 1968 or 1969 Dodge Charger, depending on the car chase, was from the start of the series more popular than any of the actors and might well be the most popular vehicle in television history. CBS took the show off the air in 1985, but the General Lee’s fame endures. Promoters of the 46th annual World of Wheels, a traveling car show for folks who think Dale Earnhardt’s birthday should be a national holiday, made the General Lee a featured attraction alongside a variety of land-speed purveyors that filled two floors of the convention center for
Ben Jones, who played mechanic and General Lee caretaker Cooter Henderson on The Dukes of Hazzard, greeted fans of the show and their offspring and posed for Polaroids in front of the car for $7 a pop. Jones is a former congressman who now makes his living through appearances with the General Lee at events like World of Wheels and through the operation of Cooter’s Place, an outpost for Dukes-related swag located in Sperryville, Va. At the convention center, Jones egged showgoers on to buy from an assortment of the items his store sells, including $20 T-shirts and $30 die-cast miniatures of the auto.
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A defining characteristic of the General Lee, more notable all these years later than its now-obsolete ability to jump rivers or come out of harrowing fender benders as healthy as it went into ’em, is the Confederate battle flag that takes up almost all of its roof. Much of the Dukes memorabilia that Jones sells, therefore, also has the flag emblazoned over some portion.
So it was jarring to see so much hawking of the Confederate flag taking place in the nation’s capital over MLK’s birthday weekend. In the decades since the Dukes first hit network TV, a lot of folks have come to regard the Confederate flag as America’s swastika. The General Lee is really the only mainstream attraction where it still flies so boldly.
Not without some controversies, however.
A major manufacturer of model automobiles, Racing Champions Ertl, removed the Confederate flag from packaging of its General Lee replicas. CBS took some heat for not painting over the flag on the General Lee during production of The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzards in Hollywood, a reunion movie produced in 2000. The film was aired shortly after a huge battle over the flag in South Carolina ended with the flag’s being taken down from above the state capitol and placed elsewhere on the grounds. The Republican presidential primary in South Carolina in 2000, remember, was the most malicious in the campaign, largely because of the squabble over the flag. While John McCain wavered, George W. Bush stood strong and told voters that the NAACP should “butt out” of the debate and leave it up to “the people of South Carolina.” Bush won the primary.
The NAACP criticized the network’s use of the flag in the midst of such divisiveness. “The fact that these guys are using it fictionally does not separate it from flying over the capital dome,” said NAACP spokesperson Sheila Douglas at the time.
Offscreen, as he was onscreen, Jones remains the car’s caretaker. He’s gotten flak for the offscreen portions. He served two terms in Congress beginning in 1988 as a Democratic member of the Georgia delegation in the House of Representatives. After redistricting, he was defeated in 1994 by Newt Gingrich. He moved to Rappahannock County, Va., several years ago, and ran again for Congress in 2002, this time for the seat in Virginia’s 7th District held by Rep. Eric Cantor (R). Jones campaigned throughout the district riding in the General Lee—a decision that peeved some members of his own party.
“As governor, I had removed the Confederate emblem from the uniforms of the state’s Air National Guard and rejected the flying of the flag over public buildings,” wrote Douglas Wilder in a memo to other members of the state Democratic leadership about Cooter’s use of the General Lee. “We have made historic strides in Virginia and we need people in office who recognize that we need to keep Virginia moving forward not backwards.”
In reaction, Jones told the Washington Times that the criticism from Wilder and others about his association with the General Lee was as “if they are attacking Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or any other piece of Americana.” Come Election Day, Jones got beat like the rebels
So he’s back on the road with the General Lee, flag and all. And from the large, quarrel-free reception at the local World of Wheels, it appears there’s still a market for it: The line leading to the General Lee’s display on Saturday afternoon was at least half an hour long. —Dave McKenna