GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Ken Webber wears his redneck heart out in the open, for all to see. On his right arm a red, white and blue tattoo depicts his skin ripped open to reveal an American flag and the words “100 percent American.” On his left, the tears reveal a Confederate flag and the words “Pure Redneck.”
So when Webber was told to surrender the Confederate flag that flies from the CB antenna on his pickup truck — or be suspended from his job driving a school bus in Talent — the choice was easy.
Webber chose his flag.
“My flag will fly,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “No one here is gonna tell me what I can and can’t believe in.”
Webber, 28, of Medford drives the kindergarten bus for Talent Elementary School.
He has been driving for First Student Inc., which contracts buses for the Phoenix-Talent School District, for the past four years. He also attends community college and is married with four young children.
Webber got the Confederate battle flag, emblazoned with the word Redneck, as a birthday present in 2009 from his dad, and has been flying it ever since.
But last month, school Superintendent Ben Bergreen saw it on Webber’s truck parked at the school bus yard in Talent and told Webber’s supervisor the flag had to go, or Webber had to go.
The school district owns the bus yard and leases it to First Student.
“The fact is, our district is about 37 percent minority students,” Bergreen said. “It’s fairly common knowledge that the Confederate battle flag is perceived by folks as a racist or negative symbol. The Southern Poverty Law Center said more than 500 extremist groups use it as one of their symbols.
“We have a policy,” he added. “It’s about displaying symbols on school property that were racist, or had a potential to be seen as racist might be a better way to say that.”
First Student spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian confirmed Webber had been suspended, but said she could not discuss details.
Webber said he could park the truck off school property, but he would have to walk a mile to his job.
He said he is suspended without pay pending an investigation, and he expects to have to sell off some belongings to pay the rent.
“I believe in God and know he’ll get us through this,” he said.
Webber has not hired a lawyer but is considering taking his stand to court.
Courts have upheld the right of schools to limit display of the Confederate flag on their property. Last November, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a Tennessee school district to suspend a student for wearing a T-shirt and belt buckle bearing the image of the Confederate battle flag.
Born in Riverside, Calif., Webber said his family moved around the country as his father was transferred from Air Force base to Air Force base, until they settled in Southern Oregon when he was 11.
He and his friends considered themselves “backyard rednecks” growing up. They hunted, fished, roamed the mountains, and drove ATVs in the mud. He dropped out of high school in Phoenix, Ore., but is working toward a degree in juvenile corrections at Rogue Community College.
“I work for what I have. I support my family. It’s just who I am. I’m a redneck,” Webber said. “It’s a way of life.”
Webber said flying the flag had nothing to do with racism, extremist groups or politics.
“When you’ve got the word ‘redneck’ going straight across (the flag), it takes away that whole thing,” he said. “It’s just about standing up for what you believe in. This is one thing I’m doing. It ain’t coming down.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.