Political Culture, Religion, and the Confederate Battle Flag Debate in Alabama

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The American South is beset by a series of widespread and vitriolic debates over the meaning of symbols associated with the short-lived Confederate States of America (1861-1865). The largest proportion of these controversies pertains to the Confederate Battle Flag and the contrasting understanding of the flag's meaning by both black and white southerners. The purpose of this article is to examine the debate over the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag in the chambers of the Alabama House of Representatives. After analyzing a 1999 vote by legislators on the issue, the controversy is considered in the context of the South's traditionalistic political culture and historic adherence to conservative Protestantism. The article concludes that both political culture and religion aid in an understanding of the passionate condemnations and defenses of the Confederate Battle Flag.

INTRODUCTION

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, approximately 600 demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The purpose of their march was to demand voting rights for African American Alabamians. At the time, fewer than one in five black Alabamians were registered to vote due to a host of obstacles including the cumulative poll tax, subjective literacy tests, and outright threats of violence (Grofman, Handley, and Niemi 1992). As the marchers crossed the bridge they were met by Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officers who beat and tear-gassed them. Within hours film footage and photos of the assault were viewed across the United States and world (Carter 1995). "Bloody Sunday" was a defining moment in the history of race relations in the United States; it led President Lyndon Johnson to champion the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in late 1965 (Wicker 1965; Davidson 1994). Notably, with-in two years of the VRA's passage, African American voter registration in Alabama increased more than two and one-half times to 52% of those eligible (Grofman, Handley, and Niemi 1992).

On March 5, 2000, President Clinton visited Selma with 10,000 other citizens including Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the 1965 voting rights march, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (Beyerle 2000b). As a result of the anniversary celebration, several thousand visitors to the state traveled to memorials to civil rights leaders and events in Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, including a newly dedicated monument to the beaten marchers near the Pettus Bridge entitled "How We Made It Over" (Rodriguez 2000; Jones and DeMonia 2000). Unlike Democratic Governor George Wallace 35 years before, Alabama's current Democratic Governor, Don Siegelman, took an active and affirmative role in the celebration speaking before the crowds and meeting with President Clinton (Beyerle 2000b).

The day prior to President Clinton's visit to Selma, on Saturday, March 4, a rally to support, promote, and celebrate southern heritage took place in Montgomery, Alabama's state capital. The rally was organized by the League of the South, an organization promoting the secession of the South from the United States. (1) Entitled "Southern Cultural Independence Day," the rally was attended by over 2,500 people with many carrying one of the several renditions of the Confederate Battle Flag (Cannon 1988; Sumrall 1999). Speeches at the rally "berated liberals, the NAACP and political correctness, all of which ... [the speakers] ... claimed were waging war on the culture of the white Southern man" (italics added, Chandler 2000, 1A).

A central target for criticism in the speeches at the rally were those opposing the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag and other symbols and monuments celebrating the short-lived (1861-1865) Confederate States of America (CSA). …