SALEM -- The question coming up in Salem, as the town plans its annual Fourth of July Parade, one of the region’s grandest, is just what the meaning of “redneck” is.
The parade annually draws dozens of floats designed around a specific theme, and this year’s theme is “Redneck Summer.”
Steven Saunders, the third assistant chief of the Salem Fire Department who is in charge of publicity for the parade, said the term is not offensive.
“A redneck is a hillbilly, and a lot of people could fit into that,” he said, adding the term also has a connection to farming. “I think it’s comical that people are upset, but it’s really only a few people.”
According to Webster’s College Dictionary, the term is derived “from the characteristic sunburned neck acquired in the fields by farm laborers.”
The dictionary goes on to define the word as slang for “a poor, white, rural Southerner, often specifically one regarded as ignorant, bigoted, violent, etc.; often a derogatory term.”
The term seems to have a milder meaning in Washington County. Some schools use “Redneck Day” as one of their theme days during homecoming week.
Town Supervisor Seth Pitts, who is in the fire department but was not involved in choosing the theme, made the agricultural connection.
“From what I understand, the term came from the south, where the farmers would work in the fields with their horses and they would have their reins over their necks, and it would be hot, and the leather would sweat and turn their necks red,” he said. “I don’t see the offensiveness of it.”
Mary Greene, who lives in a nearby town, does see it as offensive, and she has spoken to members of the department and to Pitts to let them know her opinion.
“It’s just disturbing that this is their theme. Redneck does not have such a good connotation,” she said. “This parade is a big, big deal, and you are going to have groups trying to have the best redneck float. To me, that defies the imagination.”
Saunders said the parade can draw up to 100 elements, including floats, fire and EMS equipment, youth groups, bands and other marchers.
“It’s been going down a little bit, so we decided to spice it up a little bit,” he said. “That’s why we went with this theme,”
Saunders said he could not remember last year’s theme, but said that two years ago, the theme was “Mardi Gras.”
Pitts said everyone is entitled to their opinion and that some people do see racist associations in the term, but not in Salem.
“Everyone has a different way of seeing things,” Pitts said. “Are people going to show up in white sheets because the theme is ‘Redneck Summer?’ No, not in Salem.”
Things have been busy for the department, which is raising funds to build a new firehouse on Route 22. Last weekend, the department held its first Tour De Flame, a series of bicycle rides to raise money for the project.
The parade is scheduled for July 4. It lines up at 4 p.m. at Holy Cross Church on North Main Street and starts at 5 p.m., going down Main Street to Park Place and onto the carnival grounds on Archibald Street.
The carnival will start at 6 p.m. July 2 and 3. There will be food, games and raffles. There will be a fireworks display at 9:30 p.m. July 4 with a rain date of 9 p.m. July 5. The cake booth will be open all three nights and is seeking donations of baked goods.