Tom Petty on Past Confederate Flag Use: 'It Was Downright Stupid'

"[The flag] shouldn't represent us in any way," Petty says. "It's like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person"

Tom Petty says using the Confederate flag on past tours and promotional materials was "downright stupid" Credit: Jeff Daly/Invision/AP

South Carolina's decision to lower the Confederate flag on their statehouse has caused a wide range of reactions in the rock community. While many acts are cheering the decision of the South Carolina legislature, some acts are continuing to sell Confederate flag merchandise and rockers like Kid Rock remain defiant. "Isn't Kid Rock from the Midwest?" Tom Petty asks with a chuckle. "I think they were on the other side of the Civil War."

Petty, who featured the Confederate flag prominently onstage during his Southern Accents tour in 1985, spoke to Rolling Stone hours after the flag was taken down to express remorse for his actions.

The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida. I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn't give it much thought, though I should have.

In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album. I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.

It happened because I had one song on the album called "Rebels." It's spoken from the point of view of the character, who talks about the traditions that have been handed down from family to family for so long that he almost feels guilty about the war. He still blames the North for the discomfort of his life, so my thought was the best way to illustrate this character was to use the Confederate flag.

I used it onstage during that song, and I regretted it pretty quickly. When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that. One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. I said, "Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn't who we are."

It got a mixed reaction. There were some boos and some cheers. But honestly, it's a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town. Fortunately, that went away, but it left me feeling stupid. That's the word I can use. I felt stupid. If I had just been a little more observant about things going on around me, it wouldn't have happened. We did do a live record [Pack Up The Plantation: Live!] and there was a picture inside of us playing in front of one. I went back and had it removed from the record. It took a little time to get done, but it did get done. I still feel bad about it. I've just always regretted it. I would never do anything to hurt someone.

"Lowering the flag from the statehouse grounds was the right decision. That flag shouldn't have any part in our government" 

Lowering the flag from the statehouse grounds was the right decision. That flag shouldn't have any part in our government. It shouldn't represent us in any way. The war is over. You know, it's a bit ironic: It's the only time that I know of where we defeated a country in a war and then flew their flag. But Americans were on both sides of the issues. I'm sure some people still carry it to their graves.

That Southern pride gets transferred from generation to generation. I'm sure that a lot of people that applaud it don't mean it in a racial way. But again, I have to give them, as I do myself, a "stupid" mark. If you think a bit longer, there's bad connotations to this. They might have it at the football game or whatever, but they also have it at Klan rallies. If that's part of it in any way, it doesn't belong, in any way, representing the United States of America.

To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways. There's some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them. It isn't necessarily racism. They just don't like Yankees. They don't like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren't stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it. But honestly, it all stemmed from my trying to illustrate a character. I then just let it get out of control as a marketing device for the record. It was dumb and it shouldn't have happened.

"When they wave that flag, they aren't stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that"

Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It's just awful. It's like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn't be on flagpoles.

Beyond the flag issue, we're living in a time that I never thought we'd see. The way we're losing black men and citizens in general is horrific. What's going on in society is unforgivable. As a country, we should be more concerned with why the police are getting away with targeting black men and killing them for no reason. That's a bigger issue than the flag. Years from now, people will look back on today and say, "You mean we privatized the prisons so there's no profit unless the prison is full?" You'd think someone in kindergarten could figure out how stupid that is. We're creating so many of our own problems.